North Korea plans prisoner release to mark dead leaders' birthdays

North Korea's enigmatic leader Kim Jong Il died on Saturday, December 17 2011.

Story highlights

  • The prisoner amnesty ties in with the birthdays of two dead North Korean dictators
  • Pyongyang doesn't specify how many prisoners will be released
  • The regime periodically carries out amnesties on important anniversaries
  • International organizations estimate that North Korea holds about 200,000 political prisoners

North Korea said Tuesday that it would release an unspecified number of prisoners in February to mark the birthdays of the two dictators who ruled the reclusive nation for a total of more than 60 years.

The amnesty of "convicts," ordered by a parliamentary decree, will begin February 1, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

KCNA said the move ties in with the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the revered founder of North Korea who ran the country between 1945 and 1994, and the 70th birthday of his son, Kim Jong Il, who succeeded him and remained in power until his death last month.

Leadership of the repressive regime has now passed to a third generation of the Kim family: Kim Jong Un, the youngest son and chosen successor of Kim Jong Il.

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North Korea tends to grant amnesties to prisoners at five-year intervals after an important date, like the founding of the Korean Workers' Party, according to Park In-ho, the president of Daily NK, an internet news company that monitors developments in North Korea from Seoul.

But the centennial of Kim Il Sung's birthday, for which huge commemorations are expected, could result in a particularly large release of prisoners, Park said.

In any year, Kim Il Sung's birthday on April 15, known as the "Day of the Sun," is one of the biggest dates in the North Korean calendar. His 100th birthday, combined with the 70th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Il on February 16, is likely to considerably intensify the regime's commemorative efforts.

But Park cautioned that whatever the scale of this year's amnesty, which is unlikely to include a high proportion of political prisoners, he does not think it will represent an improvement in North Korea's human rights record.

"We have had heard that usually within three months, large numbers of other people get hauled into the prison camps again," he said. "So in the long run, the country maintains almost the same number of prisoners consistently, aside from the one or two months immediately after the amnesty order."

Gauging the number of people detained by North Korea is difficult because of the regime's secretiveness and restrictions on foreign agencies operating there.

International organizations estimate that North Korea holds about 200,000 political prisoners. Park said that he believed the overall prison population to be between 300,000 and 400,000. North Korea is estimated to have a total population of about 23 million people.

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