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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un projects image as economic reformer-in-chief

North Korean leader busy visiting farms, one month after Trump summit

SEOUL -- Kim Jong Un has been conspicuously absent from the public eye since his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump last month -- except for appearances that portray the North Korean leader as the savior of his country's blighted economy.

Kim visited a textile mill late last month in Sinuiju, a city near the Chinese border, according to state media. He rebuked plant operators for failing repeatedly to fulfill production targets, saying they offer excuses for not running machinery at full capacity.

The chastened factory later held a rally announcing that production plans will be achieved "unconditionally," ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency described Kim's inspection tour of a farm and a potato processing plant built in Samjiyon County. Kim also visited a large-scale construction project in the same area. The young leader stressed the need to finish the work quickly, employing martial terms such as "three-dimensional warfare" and "blitzkrieg."

Samjiyon County holds special significance because the regime considers it the birthplace of Kim Jong Il, the previous North Korean leader and Kim Jong Un's father.

Kim has not appeared in a purely political setting since late June. He did not attend last week's invitational basketball games with South Korea in Pyongyang. The leader reportedly was occupied with inspection tours in provincial areas.

Kim even rebuffed a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his two-day visit to the North Korean capital last week. Once again, potato farms seemingly took greater priority.

Not even a key memorial service was worthy of the A-list guest. Sunday marked the 24th anniversary of the death of Kim Il Sung, the first supreme leader of North Korea. Top party officials came to pay their respects at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where Kim Jong Un's grandfather was laid to rest. The only one absent was Kim Jong Un himself.

During April's plenary meeting of the ruling party's central committee, Kim retired the "two-track" strategy of developing nuclear arms along with the economy, reasoning that the regime has successfully concluded the former. In its place, the national focus shifted solely to the economy.

Since last month's summit, Kim has been busy micromanaging the economy, handing down orders governing everything from Pyongyang's illumination to building new factories, according to experts.

The country's five special economic zones have received the lion's share of Kim's attention. One zone sits on Hwanggumpyong Island, located in the Yalu River separating China from North Korea. The regime hopes to draw Chinese factories to that district.

Another zone, the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area in the east, is intended to house resorts that attract foreign visitors. Kim Yong Chol, the senior North Korean official who visited the White House on June 1, pitched Trump on investment support for a casino at that tourist zone, South Korean media report.

The hermit state seemingly envisions a two-stage course to economic development. The plan calls for restoring trade and economic cooperation with China as soon as possible, followed by enticing a rush of investment from South Korea, Russia and others. An economic cooperation agreement with Japan is also on the table.

Kim's renewed focus on the economy suggests desperation. Tighter U.N. sanctions caused North Korean exports to dip 37% last year, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, based in Seoul.

As long as the sanctions remain, North Korea would be unable to conduct dollar settlements through offshore financial institutions, meaning the country could not receive financing from the World Bank and other international development banks.

Still, North Korea and the U.S. failed to see eye to eye during last week's talks involving Pompeo. North Korean officials denounced what they called a "gangster-like" demand for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. The regime would face obstacles to its lofty economic goals unless it agrees to material concessions on nuclear disarmament.

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