On January 10, KCNA announced a prisoner amnesty be conducted in February. Within North Korea, the move is being propagandized as a sign of the benevolence of their new leader, Kim Jong Un, in a bid to popularize him, bolstering his position as his father’s replacement.
However, the amnesty was clearly being planned long before Kim’s succession, originally to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the 70th birthday of Kim Jong Il and to mark 2012 as the year of the “Strong and Prosperous State”.
The amnesty is also seen as an attempt to pacify discontent citizens within the North, temporarily placating the population while also alleviating international pressure on the regime for its human rights abuses. The amnesty will also benefit authorities in that it will ease some of the burden on the prisons' overpopulation and food supply.
In early February, an ORNK source from Hyesan, Yangkang Province said, “Some elites and upper class people laugh at this amnesty, saying that since the authorities will not be able to meet the promise to make a ‘Strong and Prosperous State’, they did it instead of achieving the strong state so as to cover up their failure.” Meanwhile, others have claimed that, “They carried it out only because they didn’t have any space in prisons, but the authorities try to show off their benevolent policies.”
It is common to use such events to drive loyalty to the regime. The 2012 amnesty is expected to be of a large scale and KCNA has claimed it will be extended to defectors repatriated from China, and others who have attempted to escape.
The North Korean regime has also claimed it will provide for the recently released by offering them work, however it failed to explain how and this is a claim that would be difficult to verify was acted upon.
Prisoners and their families have been preparing for this amnesty well in advance to provide adequate bribes to the camp heads, according to Daily NK. An ORNK source stated that as early as last year “Children of some affluent families among prisoners tried to be released by offering some bribes to People’s Safety Ministry officials and prison officials.”
While the motivations for the amnesty may be less than noble, and it cannot be assuredly conducted in a fair manner, any move that means fewer prisoners in North Korea and shows a reaction to international pressure should be seen as a positive development.
Previous amnesties have been held in 2002, 2005 and 2010 to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birthday and anniversaries of the establishment of the Workers’ Party. In 2005, North Korean authorities said “The amnesty is to realize the generosity and magnanimity of our Party, which establishes the will and achievements of Suryeong (Kim Il Sung) and brightens the 60th liberation of the country and founding day of the Chosun Worker’s Party.”