— SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Monday shifted, at least temporarily, away from weeks of warlike rhetoric, appointing a new premier seen as an economic reformer after a high-level declaration that nuclear bomb building and a stronger economy are the nation's top priorities.
The U.S., meanwhile, announced its latest conspicuous display of firepower, sending F-22 stealth fighter jets to participate in annual U.S.-South Korean war games that Pyongyang calls preparation for invasion. The new South Korean president, who has a policy meant to re-engage Pyongyang with talks and aid, told her top military leaders Monday to set aside political considerations and respond strongly should North Korea attack.
The reemergence of Pak Pong Ju as premier at an annual spring parliamentary session is seen by analysts as a clear signal that leader Kim Jong Un is moving to back up recent statements vowing a focus on strengthened economic development. The U.N. says two-thirds of the country's 24 million people face regular food shortages. Pak was reportedly sacked as prime minister in 2007 after proposing a U.S.-style wage system.
The appointment signals that Pak will play a key role in economic policymaking again.
"Pak Pong Ju is the face of economic reform, such as it exists — reform with North Korean characteristics as they say," said John Delury, a professor and North Korea analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University.
Any economic changes won't be radical, Delury said, and, for the time being, they're mostly aspirational. One possible change could entail a shift of part of the country's massive military spending into the economy as a whole, he said.
Pyongyang has reacted with anger to the U.S.-South Korean military drills and to a new round of U.N. and U.S. sanctions that followed its Feb. 12 underground nuclear test, the country's third. Analysts see a full-scale North Korean attack as unlikely and say the threats are more likely efforts to provoke softer policies toward Pyongyang from a new government in Seoul, to win diplomatic talks with Washington and to solidify the young North Korean leader's military credentials at home.