PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea on Sunday vowed to stage an all-out drive for prosperity as it unites behind new leader Kim Jong Un, ushering in 2012 with promises to resolve food shortages, bolster its military and defend Kim Jong Il's young son "unto death."
The pledge in North Korea's annual New Year's message, released by the official Korean Central News Agency, comes as the country enters a new era, with Kim Jong Un installed as Supreme Commander of the 1.2 million-strong military and ruling party leader following his father's Dec. 17 death.
This year is a crucial one in North Korea's history as it tries to build a "great and prosperous nation" befitting the April 2012 centenary of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, the new leader's grandfather.
"Glorify this year 2012 as a year of proud victory, a year when an era of prosperity is unfolding," the North said. "The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should possess a firm conviction that they will become human bulwarks and human shields in defending Kim Jong Un unto death."
North Korea said it would boost its military, and boasted that it was "at the epochal point of opening the gates of a thriving country," with parts of Pyongyang "turned into socialist fairylands."
Still, the message also acknowledged the country's food crisis, saying "the food problem is a burning issue." Pyongyang had been in talks with the United States on food aid, but they stopped because of Kim Jong Il's death.
The United Nations has said a quarter of North Korea's 24 million people need outside food aid and that malnutrition is surging, especially among children.
The North's message did not give specifics for improving food supplies, other than saying the party's policy of agricultural revolution should increase yields.
North Korea's traditional New Year's Day message is always closely watched for clues to the government's plans. It takes on added significance this year coming just two weeks after the death of longtime leader Kim Jong Il.
North Korea in recent days has cemented Kim Jong Un's position as leader, and on Saturday officially named him Supreme Commander over the military.
"The entire army should place absolute trust in and follow Kim Jong Un," the New Year's message said.
The North linked Kim Jong Un to the "songun," or military-first, policy of Kim Jong Il, and called him "the eternal center" of the country's unity. In fact, the editorial said, "The dear respected Kim Jong Un is precisely the great Kim Jong Il."
The message spoke of a desire for reunification with South Korea — a point the North often mentions — but did not give specifics. Pyongyang warned Friday that there would be no softening of its position toward South Korea's government after Kim Jong Il's death.
North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission said the country would never deal with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who stopped a no-strings-attached aid policy toward the North in 2008.
North Korea, which has tested two atomic devices since 2006, has said it wants to return to the negotiating table for talks on halting its nuclear weapons program in return for aid. Washington and Seoul, however, insist that the North make progress on past disarmament commitments before negotiations can resume.
Six-nation nuclear talks have been stalled for three years. Besides the two Koreas, the talks include China, the United States, Russia and Japan.
The Korean peninsula remains technically in a state of war because the 1950s conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Kim Jong Un also received a boost from China, his country's biggest backer. President Hu Jintao sent congratulations to Kim late Saturday on his appointment as supreme military leader. The message, carried on the government's website, was China's most direct show of support for the new leader. It said the people and armies of the countries had a deep traditional friendship, and that relations will continue to be strengthened.
Associated Press writers Foster Klug, Hyung-jin Kim and Scott McDonald in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. Follow Klug at twitter.com/APklug.