- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

SEOUL (AP) — 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 that 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, the Korean Central News Agency reported that North Korea’s top military officers again swore 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 in February and the 100th anniversary in April of the birth of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung.

KCNA 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 on 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 “remain true” to Kim Jong-un’s leadership and shouted slogans such as “Devoted defense of Kim Jong-un,” according to KCNA. Later Monday, troops marched across the plaza outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Il-sung’s body lies in state and Kim Jong-il’s lay before his funeral.

“We will build a 10,000-fold bulwark for protecting the supreme commander and become rifles and bombs to serve as Kim Jong-un’s first-line lifeguards and Kim Jong-un’s first-line death-defying corps,” KCNA reported Ri Yong-ho, chief of the military’s general staff, as saying.

North Korea has staged a series of rallies nationwide vowing to unite around Kim Jong-un and uphold his father’s “military-first policy.” During a massive public memorial for the elder Kim on Dec. 29, North Korea declared Kim Jong-un “supreme leader” of the ruling Workers’ Party, the military and the country.

For the second time since Sunday, state television replayed a documentary focused on Kim Jong-un’s military experience that shows him in the cockpit of a tank, galloping by on horseback and poring over documents at night.

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

Pyongyang and Washington recently met 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.

Associated Press writer Park Il-hwan contributed to this report.

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