Image: 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
In this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service on Friday, 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."
updated 1/1/2012 9:40:09 AM ET 2012-01-01T14:40:09

North Korea vowed Sunday to make 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 as ruling party leader following his father's Dec. 17 death.

On the streets of Pyongyang, the mood was more somber than in past New Year's celebrations, as people gathered in large crowds to pay tribute to Kim Jong Il, who ruled the country for 17 years.

This New Year's 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 may be willing to continue talks with Washington to win food aid.

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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."

In Pyongyang, the day was cold, snowy and gray, with splashes of bright color provided by flags, lanterns and banners reading "Happy New Year" that decorated the streets. The celebration, however, coming just days after the official mourning period for Kim Jong Il ended, was muted, unlike past years when cheerful people in their best holiday clothes thronged the streets.

Story: Kim Jong Un named commander of North Korea's 1.2 million-strong military

From early morning, streams of people, their expressions solemn, bowed and laid bouquets and wreaths at monuments to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. Families trudged through the snow, carrying potted flowers and plants, to put their offerings beneath large portraits of a broadly smiling Kim Jong Il.

Workers at covered flower stands handed out yellow and red flowers to large crowds. Some slogans around the city repeated the official New Year's message, calling on citizens to glorify the coming year. Newly released posters urged people to "turn sorrow into strength and courage," a sentiment often heard from North Koreans since Kim's death.

"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.

Kim Jong Un spent part of the day visiting a tank division, state media said, in what was apparently his first reported military field inspection since his father's death. Kim Jong Il regularly visited military units, factories and farms across the country, and his son's trip provides further evidence of the North's intention to link him closely with the military.

Kim Jong Un praised soldiers for closely watching enemy troops, KCNA reported. He was accompanied by his uncle and key patron Jang Song Thaek and Ri Yong Ho, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army.

The New Year's message said North Korea would boost its military and boasted that the country 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 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."

"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 and takes on added significance this year, coming just two weeks after Kim Jong Il died.

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 New Year's message 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, 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 nuclear 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, as President Hu Jintao sent congratulations to Kim on his appointment as head of the military.

___

Associated Press writers Foster Klug, Hyung-jin Kim and Scott McDonald in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  1. Pyongyang

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Media access to Kim Jong Il's funeral is restricted. North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has provided many of the images.

    Korean People's Army officers bowing their heads at the memorial service for the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang, Dec. 29, ending 13 days of official mourning and formally declaring his young son, Kim Jong Un as the new supreme leader. (KCNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Pyongyang

    North Korean workers pray silently during the memorial for Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, Dec. 29. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pyongyang

    Railroad workers observe a moment of silence during a memorial service for Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, Dec. 29. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pyongyang

    A sea of people stand in a Pyongyang plaza on Thursday, Dec. 29 to attend the memorial service for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. (KCNA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pyongyang

    North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un looks on during the memorial for his father in Pyongyang on Dec. 29. (KRT via Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Pyongyang

    North Koreans pray silently during a memorial for Kim Jong Il on Dec. 29. Three minutes of silence were observed nationwide, after which sirens and ship and train horns were heard. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tokyo, Japan

    Mourners gather in front of a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a memorial service organized by the General Association of Korean residents in Japan, in Tokyo on Dec. 29. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pyongyang

    The funeral procession for North Korea's late leader Kim Jong-Il arrives at the square of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang. Tens of thousands of weeping North Koreans bade farewell Dec. 28 to longtime leader Kim Jong-Il. (KCNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pyongyang

    North Koreans react during their late leader Kim Jong Il's funeral procession in Pyongyang in this image taken from video Dec. 28. North Korea's military staged a huge funeral procession on Wednesday in the snowy streets of the capital Pyongyang for its deceased "dear leader," Kim Jong Il. (KRT via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pyongyang

    Military personnel bow as a car passes with a portrait of Kim Jong Il during his funeral at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang. North Korean state television began broadcasting the funeral of late leader Dec.28, with footage of tens of thousands of troops bowing their heads in the snow outside a memorial palace. (KCNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Pyongyang

    Mourners react as a car carrying Kim Jong Il's coffin passes during his funeral procession in Pyongyang Dec. 28. (Kyodo News via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pyongyang

    Kim Jong Un salutes besides the convoy carrying the body of his father Kim Jong Il at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang Dec. 28. (KCNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pyongyang

    North Koreans grieve during the funeral procession for Kim Jong Il as his casket arrives at the square of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang. (KCNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pyongyang

    Mourners gather around a hearse carrying the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's coffin as it passes through the streets of the North Korean capital Pyongyang during his state funeral Dec.28. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans lined the route of Kim Jong Il's funeral cortege in snowfall as the leader's body was driven through the streets of Pyongyang. (KCNVA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Pyongyang

    A uniformed man tries to control crowds attending the funeral procession for Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, Dec. 28. (KRT via Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Pyongyang

    Kim Jong Un, front right, and Jang Song-Thaek, front left, walk besides the convoy carrying the body Kim Jong Il at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang. (KCNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Pyongyang

    Members of North Korea's military react during the funeral procession for their former leader in Pyongyang. (Kyodo News via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Seoul, South Korea

    A South Korean war veteran burns a North Korean flag and pictures of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un during a rally against North Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 28, the same day of the funeral for the late North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Seoul, South Korea

    South Korean activists try to enter the office of pro-unification civic group after one of its members entered North Korea to send her condolences for late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at a rally on Dec. 28, in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pyongyang

    North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un, cries as his father, Kim Jong Il, lies in state during the run-up to his funeral in Pyongyang on Dec. 27. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Pyongyang

    Women mourn the late Kim Jong Il at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where his body lies in state, in Pyongyang Dec. 27. (KCNA via KNS - AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pyongyang

    Lee Hee-ho, widow of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, shakes hands with new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after she paid her respects to the late Kim Jong Il Dec. 26. Lee Hee-ho, whose husband drew up a now-abandoned policy of engagement with the North, led a delegation across the border and laid wreaths at the mausoleum where Kim Jong Il's body is on display. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Pyongyang

    Workers of the Kim Jong Tae electric locomotive plant gathering for what was described as a declaration of their resolve and to offer condolences to Kim Jong Il Dec. 26. (KCNA via KNS - AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Pyongyang

    Civilians use their jackets to shelter flowers offered to pay tribute to their late leader Kim Jong Il at a square in front of Pyongyang Gymnasium Dec. 23. (KCNA via KNS - AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pyongyang

    A uniformed woman reacts as she pays her respects to Kim Jong Ill in Pyongyang Dec. 21. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pyongyang

    North Koreans gather for a condolence call for deceased leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang Dec. 21. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Pyongyang

    North Korean traffic officers pay their respects at a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, Dec. 21. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Paju, South Korea

    North Korean defectors who live in South Korea prepare to fly balloons carrying anti-North Korea leaflets at the Imjinkak pavilion, near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas in Paju, Dec. 21. The defector groups released 200,000 anti-North Korea leaflets and celebrated the death of Kim Jong Il with protests against condolences to the dictator's death. The slogans on the balloons read "Liberate North Korean compatriot," "Terminated three generation hereditary power transfer," "Go to hell, Kim Jong-il," "No condolence call to devil" and "North Koreans, uprising". (Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Pyongyang

    Foreigners living and working in Pyongyang, including the United Nations' resident coordinator in North Korea, Jerome Sauvage, right front, pay their respects at a portrait of late North Korean leader at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, Dec. 21. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Pyongyang

    North Koreans make a call of condolence at the Kim Il Sung Plaza in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency, Dec. 21. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Pyongyang

    North Koreans visit mourning places throughout the country to express condolences over the death of leader Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, Dec. 20. (Kcna / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Pyongyang

    North Koreans pass a row of flags flying at half mast on the morning after the day that the death of their leader Kim Jong Il was announced, in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday Dec. 20, 2011. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Pyongyang

    New North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un pays respects to his father and former leader Kim Jong Il, who is lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang on Tuesday, Dec. 20. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Pyongyang

    North Koreans visit mourning places throughout the country to express deep condolences over the death of leader Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 20. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Pyongyang, North Korea

    Hundreds of North Koreans gather to mourn the death of their leader, Kim Jong Il, in front of a giant statue of his father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea on Monday, Dec. 19. North Korea's news agency reported that he had died at 8:30 a.m. Saturday after having a heart attack on a train, adding that he had been treated for cardiac and cerebrovascular diseases for a long time. He was 69 years old. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Pyongyang, North Korea

    North Korean women cry after learning death of their leader Kim Jong Il on Dec. 19 in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Pyongyang, North Korea

    Undated footage released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Dec. 19 shows North Koreans citizens mourning after the death of their leader in Pyongyang. (Korean Central News Agency via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Pyongyang, North Korea

    North Koreans cry after learning death of their leader Kim Jong Il, Dec. 19, in Pyongyang. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Paju, South Korea

    South Korean soldiers patrol near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul Dec. 19. The death of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il sparked immediate concern over who is in control of the reclusive state and its nuclear program. (Lim Byong-sik / Yonhap via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Seoul, South Korea

    South Koreans read extras reporting the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the train station in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 19. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Beijing, China

    A waitress cries after hearing news of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, at a North Korean restaurant in Beijing, Dec. 19. China said that it was "distressed" to learn of the death of Kim Jong Il, but remained confident that the North would remain united and that the two neighbors would keep up their cooperation. (China Daily via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Beijing, China

    Staff hoist a national flag at half-mast on the rooftop of North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Dec. 19, following the announced death of Kim Jong Il. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (42) Funeral and reaction to the death of Kim Jong Il - World reacts
  2. ARCHIVES : KIM IL SUNG AND KIM JONG IL
    Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma
    Slideshow (36) Funeral and reaction to the death of Kim Jong Il - Kim Jong Il through the years
  3. ARCHIVES : KIM IL SUNG AND KIM JONG IL
    Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma
    Slideshow (36) The life of Kim Jong ll - Kim Jong Il through the years
  4. Image:
    KCNA via AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (42) The life of Kim Jong ll - World reacts
  5. Image:
    David Guttenfelder / AP
    Slideshow (53) Journey into North Korea

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