N. Korea: We'll defend Kim Jong Un "unto death"

New North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, not in uniform, presides over a national memorial service for his late father, Kim Jong Il, at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Dec. 29, 2011. AP Photo

Updated at 12:31 a.m. ET Jan. 1, 2012

PYONGYANG, North Korea - North Korea vowed Sunday 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, prosperous and powerful 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."

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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 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 said organic farming methods should be used and that farming machinery and materials should be provided, but it did not go into specifics for improving food supplies.

The message, carried in a joint editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, Joson Inmingun and Chongnyon Jonwi newspapers, said North Korea must build on the foundations laid last year and turn itself "into an economic giant."

The power and coal industries also will be a focus and the North Korean capital Pyongyang will be turned into a world class city, it said. The message said information technology and bioengineering would help drive the economy, but gave no details.

"This year's message shows North Korea will focus on the economy and ideological solidarity to establish stability" for Kim Jong Un's leadership, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.

The message didn't include the country's typical criticism of the U.S. and avoided mentioning its nuclear ambitions, and that suggested Pyongyang is willing to continue talks with Washington to win aid, Yoo said.

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.

The North again expressed its anger against Seoul over what it calls "confrontation with the fellow countrymen," citing its refusal to allow South Koreans, except for two private delegations, to visit and pay respects to Kim Jong Il.

"The ruling forces in South Korea have become an object of people's stern trial," Sunday's editorial said, also demanding that U.S. troops stationed in South Korea be removed.

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.

Yoo, the professor, said the North's warning is aimed at increasing its leverage in future negotiations to wrest more aid. "North Korea won't come to high-level government talks but would still want to get aid from civilian groups," he said.

Lee is expected to comment on North Korea when he gives a New Year's speech scheduled for Monday.

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.

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