Prisoners to be freed, seen as bid to build Kim Jong-un’s popularity

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SEOUL | North Korea said Tuesday it will issue special pardons for convicts, a rare move that appeared to be aimed at boosting the popularity of young new leader Kim Jong-un as he attempts to fill his late father’s shoes.

Efforts to show Mr. Kim is firmly in control have provided a drumbeat of news reports in state media since his father, Kim Jong-il, died Dec. 17.

On Tuesday, North Korea’s state television showed top military officers again swearing fervent pledges of loyalty, vowing to become human “rifles and bombs” to defend Kim Jong-un, who recently was appointed supreme commander of the armed forces.

The amnesty, to be issued beginning Feb. 1, is to commemorate what would have been Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday and the 100th anniversary in April of the birth of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung.

The North’s Korean Central News Agency did not say what sorts of crimes would be pardoned or how many inmates would be freed.

The pardons will be the first such dispensations in more than six years.

The measure appears aimed at winning public confidence for Kim Jong-un as the country struggles to revive its troubled economy, said Kim Kwang-in, a researcher at the Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Center.

A U.N. envoy for human rights in North Korea said last year that the country is estimated to hold up to 200,000 people in political prison camps. The North has denied the existence of gulags.

North Korea occasionally marks significant holidays by granting amnesties, and Pyongyang has promoted this year’s Kim Il-sung centenary as a significant milestone in the country’s history.

North Korea last conducted such a special pardon in August 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Soldiers and top military officers, meanwhile, pledged to “live or die” with Kim Jong-un and shouted slogans such as “Devoted defense of Kim Jong-un,” state television showed. Later Monday, troops marched outside Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Il-sung’s body lies in state, as thick haze blanketed the plaza.

Neither Kim Jong-un nor senior ruling-party officials were seen at the rally.

North Korea is seeking to extend the Kim dynasty into a third generation as the nation grapples with chronic food shortages and remains locked in a long-running standoff over its nuclear program.

Pyongyang and Washington met recently for talks on food aid and how to restart nuclear disarmament talks, but those discussions were suspended after Kim Jong-il’s death.

The Korean peninsula remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to deter potential North Korean aggression.

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