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NKorea vows to defend Kim Jong Un 'unto death'

In this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, a commemorative postage stamp featuring late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un is shown. The words on the top read 'The great leader comrade Kim Jong Il will always be with us.' In this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, a commemorative postage stamp featuring late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un is shown. The words on the top read "The great leader comrade Kim Jong Il will always be with us." (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service)
January 1, 2012
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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 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.

The message didn't include the North's routine harsh criticism of the United States and avoided the country's nuclear ambitions, a suggestion that Pyongyang is willing to continue talks with Washington to win food aid.

This year is a crucial one for North Korea 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," said the New Year's message, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. "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 is "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." North Korea 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 did not go into specifics for improving food supplies.

The message, a joint editorial appearing in the Rodong Sinmun, Joson Inmingun and Chongnyon Jonwi newspapers, said North Korea must build on foundations laid last year and turn itself "into an economic giant." It also stressed the need to boost its power and coal industries and promote studies of information technology and bioengineering.

"This year's message shows North Korea will focus on its 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.

"There is also no specific mention of the United States or the nuclear program, and that shows North Korea is leaving room for the chance of improved ties with the United States," Yoo said.

The traditional New Year's Day message is 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 its new leader, and on Saturday officially named him supreme commander of the military.

"The entire army should place absolute trust in and follow Kim Jong Un," the New Year's message said.

It 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.

The message spoke of a desire for reunification with South Korea -- a point North Korea often mentions -- but did not give specifics. The North 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 Friday 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 long-stalled talks on halting its nuclear weapons program in return for aid. Washington and Seoul, however, have insisted that the North show progress on past disarmament commitments before negotiations can resume.

The six-nation talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

The Korean peninsula remains technically in a state of conflict because the 1950-53 Korean War 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.

In Pyongyang, streams of people laid flowers and bowed deeply at monuments to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung on New Year's Day.

"We lost the great Kim Jong Il because we did not do our work well. How can we have a rest?" Vice Minister of Mining Industry Pak Thae Gu told The Associated Press. "I will work harder true to the joint New Year editorial so as to carry out Kim Jong Il's last instructions and build a prosperous and powerful country."

Also Sunday, state media said posters inspiring the army and people have been created in North Korea. KCNA said one, titled "Let's turn sorrow into strength and courage and remain loyal to our great party," reflects the firm pledge of all North Koreans to build a thriving socialist nation and hold Kim Jong Un in high esteem.

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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.

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