By Jack Kim and Sung-won Shim
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea called on its people to rally behind new leader Kim Jong-un and protect him as "human shields" while working to solve the "burning issue" of food shortages by upholding the policies of his late father, Kim Jong-il.
The North's three main state newspapers said in a policy-setting editorial traditionally published on New Year's Day that Kim Jong-un has legitimacy to carry on the revolutionary battle initiated by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and developed by his father, the iron-fisted ruler who died two weeks ago.
"Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of our Party and our people, is the banner of victory and glory of Songun (military-first) Korea and the eternal centre of its unity," the 5,000-word editorial carried by the North's state KCNA news agency said.
Asserting that the inexperienced young Kim, in his late 20s, is "precisely" identical to his father, the editorial said "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."
Notably, the editorial called North Korea's food problem "a burning issue" for the ruling Workers' Party to solve and build "a thriving country."
"Glorify this year 2012 as a year of proud victory, a year when an era of prosperity is unfolding, true to the instructions of the great General Kim Jong-il," the editorial said.
The destitute North has been suffering from chronic food shortages, relying heavily on outside aid. A U.N. report said in November the isolated communist state needs food assistance for nearly 3 million of its 24 million people in 2012.
NO MENTION OF NUCLEAR ARMS
Many Korea-watchers in Seoul say the editorial did not suggest any major new changes in social or economic policies but appeared to be sensitive over the food issue.
"In order to solidify and stabilize his grip on power, tackling the food problem is one of the top agenda topics Kim Jong-un should deal with for now," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Koran Studies, told Reuters.
The editorial also assailed the South Korean government for pursuing confrontation despite efforts by the North to reopen dialogue, and it repeated its demand for the withdrawal of the U.S. military from the South.
But conspicuously absent from the editorial was any mention of North Korea's nuclear arms program, the key source of regional security concerns during Kim Jong-il's reign.
"The North seems poised to focus its polices on stabilizing domestic matters such as economic issues for the time being rather than to aggressively come forward with diplomatic affairs," said Yoo Ho-yeol, an North Korea expert at Korea University.
The North's remarks on the nuclear issue were featured prominently in previous New Year's Day editorials.
Momentum was building in diplomatic contacts between the North and the United States before the announcement of Kim Jong-il's death, raising expectations the two sides may be closer to reaching a compromise to restart stalled talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear program.
Those talks stalled in 2008 when Pyongyang baulked at inspections of its nuclear sites under a 2005 deal by six countries -- the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia -- to give the impoverished North aid in return for disarmament.
"By giving up on comments on the nuclear issue, the North would secure much room in negotiations with the United States and the other signatories of the six-party talks," said Yang.
In a fiery message last week that marked the first communication with the outside world since Kim Jong-il's death, the North's National Defence Commission, which is seen as the apex of power, declared it would not deal with the current government in the South.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak angered Pyongyang by cutting off aid to its destitute neighbor when he took office in 2008, demanding nuclear disarmament and economic reform as preconditions to reopen food assistance and political engagement.
Tensions on the divided peninsula reached a new peak in 2010 when the North launched an artillery barrage into a South Korean island, killing civilians. The North was also blamed for a torpedo attack against a South Korean navy ship that killed 46.
North and South Korea are technically still at war under a truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War.
KCNA said later on Sunday that Kim Jong-un visited an army tank division in what it said was the first military inspection as supreme commander. The move signaled Kim would be continuing the kind of trips taken by his father as the key public appearances that publicized his activity as national leader.
The North's state media said on Saturday Kim Jong-un has been officially appointed supreme commander of its 1.2-million strong military, two days after the official mourning for the dead leader ended, in a move seen as a rush to solidify succession and boost the younger Kim's grip on power.
Kim Jong-un was named a four-star general and given the vice-chairmanship of the ruling party's Central Military Commission by his father in 2010.
Experts believe the untested new leader, who had only been groomed for power since 2009, will rule with the aid of a close coterie that includes his uncle and key power-broker, Jang Song-thaek, at least in the early stages of the leadership transition.
(Editing by Ed Lane)