Pak Pong Ju was the Premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He held the premiership between 2003 and 2007, and then from 2013 until 2019. The role of premier has changed since the foundation of the republic in 1948 and was originally the de-facto executive office held by Kim Il Sung until 1972 when he took the newly created position of President. Since a constitutional reform in 1998 the job of the Premier is to oversee the cabinet and, like all other members of the cabinet, the Premier is appointed by the Supreme People’s Assembly. The Premier of the Cabinet is one of three positions in the country which together form the executive branch of the government (the Premier, the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission and the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly). In theory the Premier’s role is to oversee domestic issues whilst the SPA President is in charge of foreign relations and the SAC Chairman heads the military. In practice however the Chairman of the SAC, Marshall Kim Jong Un, commands most of the political power in the country.
Premier Pak (left) in China in 2005 during his first term as Premier
Pak Pong Ju was born in 1939 in what is now North Hamgyong Province. In his early twenties he became the manager of the Ryongchon Food Factory in North Pyongan Province and in 1980 he was made an alternate member of the Worker’s Party of Korea; three years later he joined the committee overseeing the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex in Anju, South Pyongan. During the 1990s he rose to prominence within the party acting as vice-director of the light industry department in 1993 serving as a principle deputy to Kim Kyong Hui, sister of then Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il. A year later he was appointed vice-chairman of the WPK’s Economic Policy Supervisory Department. He took a significant role in 1998 overseeing the chemical industry nation-wide as a minister before being appointed Premier of the Cabinet in 2003.
Premier Pak Pong Ju with Marshall Kim Jong Un during an inspection of new metro vehicles.
Pak Pong Ju focussed heavily on the economy during his first stint as Premier leading a campaign of new economic policies which included legalising and regulating food distribution from farms outside of the state distribution system. These reforms included allowing farm managers to run their own farms and distribute some of their produce to workers. This helped speed up the national recovery from the Arduous March. Most of his major reform programs allowed farmers more autonomy in the running of their state-owned farms. This made it possible for them to accept foreign investment and sell on the open market (whilst still being heavily regulated). At the time these proposals were radical and moved the economy away from the centrally planned system the country had been running on since its foundation. During his first premiership Pak Pong Ju visited the People’s Republic of China alongside General Kim Jong Il twice before being formally dismissed in 2007 following accusations of mismanaging funds.
In 2013 he was re-appointed Premier under Marshall Kim Jong Un and carried out some of the more radical economic reforms which he initially proposed to the government during his first term. At the time the leadership was unwilling to enact such radical proposals but the new leading politicians accepted the Premier’s suggestions and some suggest these reforms have allowed the DPRK to survive the harsh economic sanctions imposed in recent years.
Pak Pong Ju during a mine inspection on Feb 13. 2019
Premier Pak is a veteran of politics in the DPRK having served as a party member for almost 40 years at the time of writing. Many of his public appearances today mirror the on-the-spot guidance visits performed by Marshall Kim Jong Un. He regularly inspects industrial plants, farms, mines and power stations around the country providing guidance to the managers and workers; these visits are well publicised in state media. At the age of 79 (at time of publication) it is unknown how long this divisive figure will remain in the forefront of politics in the DPRK. He does however seem to have the ear of the leadership on economic issues and he will no doubt be considered one of the most devoted and successful people to hold the office of Premier since President Kim Il Sung in 1972.