Had Kim Jong il not died, it is probable that a general amnesty would be in the cards to mark the centenary of his father.
Saying this, the announcement marks a promising new direction in the DPRK. The foreign press will seize on this news with a good dollop of cynicism and comic relief befitting 'doubting Thomases'. Already the Pyongyang watchers have already picked up hints of slight movement of the economy towards embracing a market orientation but at a pace and a degree of comfort that the North Koreans themselves desire. [This trend is hardly new: Rudiger Frank, early on in the 1990s, pointed to the existence of savvy economists who were slowly encouraging the North Korean economy towards reform, and that at a time when everyone in the US, South Korea, and Europe were waiting for the crumbling of the DPRK. Didn't happen though to their general disappointment.]
North Korean watchers have been quick to stress that Kim Jong eun's physical appearance has been altered to resemble his grandfather, a man much revered 16 years after his death. Be that as it may, the 'young general' has a winning smile and appears to fit easily into his new role as a hand fits into a glove.
And at the beginning of his 'reign', he has the advantage of bringing new wine to old bottles. However, he also has to defend his country against the hostile intentions of the US and South Korea who want nothing better than regime change in the North. He is a general of an a million man army or more who is on the 'qui vive' since it is in a state of war in Korea which has never been formerly ended by a peace treaty but only frozen in time by a 1953 armistice. He is the leader of a country hit by the vagaries of global warming: floods, heavy rains, bad weather that have ruined North Korea's agriculture, and at the same time, that has seen the malicious tying of denial of food aid by the US, the EU, Australia, and South Korea to unacceptable political demands, a coordinated policy whose ultimate aim is to starve North Korea into submission.
Yet, like his father, Kim Jong eun will nonetheless seek talks with the US with no preconditions which for ideological reasons is an anathema to the White House.
Still, the announcement of a general prisoner amnesty is a welcome sign. It should alert Washington and Seoul and Tokyo and Canberra and other western nations that business is not going to be conducted in old ways. And these capitols no longer have an excuse in taking refuge in wooden language that they had not seen change coming, reinforcing the stereotype that North Korea is unpredictable, they only have themselves to blame for their own blindness and deafness to change.