SEOUL, South Korea (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 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 was recently appointed as the military's supreme commander.
The pardons, to be issued beginning Feb. 1, are to commemorate Kim Jong Il's 70th birthday in February and the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, in April.
KCNA did not say what sorts of crimes would be pardoned or how many inmates would be freed.
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 such gulags.
The pardons will be the first such dispensations in more than six years. An analyst said the measure is aimed at winning public confidence for Kim Jong Un as the country struggles to revive its troubled economy.
"Public sentiments aren't very good, so the authorities aimed to appease them" with the pardons, said Kim Kwang-in, a researcher at the Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Center.
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. South Korea's Unification Ministry says North Korea last conducted such a special pardon in August 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan's colonial rule.
The military rally for Kim Jong Un was held Monday at a Pyongyang mausoleum for Kim Jong Il, according to KCNA. Top military officers and ordinary soldiers pledged to "remain true" to Kim Jong Un's leadership and shouted slogans such as "Devoted defense of Kim Jong Un," according to KCNA. Troops later paraded through a plaza, it said.
"We will build a ten thousands-fold bulwark for protecting the supreme commander and become rifles and bombs to serve as Kim Jong Un first-line lifeguards and Kim Jong Un first-line death-defying corps," said Ri Yong Ho, chief of the military's general staff.
North Korea has staged similar rallies vowing to unite around Kim Jong Un and uphold his father's "military-first policy." On a massive public memorial for the elder Kim on Dec. 29, North Korea declared Kim Jong Un as "supreme leader" of the ruling Workers' Party, military and the country.
The process to extend the Kim dynasty into a third generation draws keen attention worldwide 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 is officially at 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 Korea aggression.
Associated Press writer Park Il-hwan contributed to this report.