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N. Korea to issue special pardons for prisoners to mark 70th founding anniversary

North Korea will issue special pardons for prisoners to mark the 70th anniversary of the regime, North Korean state media said Monday, which experts see as Kim Jong-un’s effort to bolster domestic solidarity amid a shift in political atmosphere following last month’s US-North Korea summit.

“The DPRK will grant amnesty to those who have been convicted of crimes against the state and people on the occasion of the 70th founding anniversary of the DPRK,” the Korean Central News Agency said, referring to North Korea with the abbreviation of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea celebrates its Sept. 9 founding day with fireworks. (KCNA)
North Korea celebrates its Sept. 9 founding day with fireworks. (KCNA)

The amnesty will take effect from Aug. 1, it added, more than a month before the actual founding day on Sept. 9.

The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, which is the North’s primary legislative body, promulgated a decree in this regard on July 12. The cabinet and relevant organs will “take practical measures to help the released people settle into normal working life,” according to the KCNA.

However, it is uncertain whether those detained in prison camps, one of the main concerns of human rights activists, will also be granted amnesty. Uncertainty also remains over the six South Korean detainees who are still in North Korea, though the reclusive regime released all three American detainees in May.

“It’s a complicated issue because the US detainees were released without an official pardon, so it is likely that North Korea sees the detainees as a separate issue. There is also the North’s repeated demand of repatriation of 12 restaurant workers here, so we’ll have to wait and see,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

The last time North Korea granted amnesty was in 2015, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule and establishment of its Workers’ Party of Korea.

It also made a similar decision in 2012, not long after the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un came to power, in what critics saw as a move to help cement his power.

Taking into account the timing and precedents, North Korea watchers see hidden intentions behind the mass pardons.

“Such a move could be used to bolster internal solidarity and serve as a reminder of Kim’s power, as public expectation of North Korea’s economic opening coupled with normalization of relations with the US seems to be growing within the country following the US-North Korea summit last month,” said Koh.

“Kim highlighted the occasion (70th anniversary of the founding of the country) in his New Year’s speech at the beginning of the year -- it’s mostly about internal solidarity, but at the same time a move that addresses the international criticisms surrounding its poor human rights record,” he added. The announcement comes as the US and North Korea are negotiating denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. After North Korea pledged to focus on economic prosperity earlier this year, it is believed that Kim seeks economic incentives and normalization of relations with the US in return for complete dismantlement of its nuclear program.