(ATTN: ADDS with other incidents involving fishermen from para 8)
SEOUL, Jan. 16 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's state-run media has stepped up efforts to portray Kim Jong-un as a leader devoted to the welfare of the people in an attempt to solidify his hold on power, local sources said Wednesday.
Observers in Seoul said a front-page article carried by the Rodong Sinmun claimed four fishermen who were rescued after drifting aimlessly for 46 hours in the Yellow Sea expressed "tearful gratitude" toward Kim for their safe return.
The newspaper also said the families of those rescued, and all people in South Pyeongan Province, hailed the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) for ordering the prompt dispatch of an aircraft to help save the fishermen.
"The rescue story printed on the front page of the WPK-controlled paper on Wednesday is an indication that the media outlet wants to bolster people's loyalty to the young leader," a North Korean watcher said. He pointed out that securing loyalty is important for Kim, who came to power abruptly after his father's sudden death in late 2011.
Kim's age is not known with some intelligence sources claiming he was born in 1984 while Pyongyang has maintained for the past few years that he was born in 1982.
Other experts on the communist country said judging by the country's track record of using events and near tragedies to glorify its leaders in the past, recent articles are nothing out of the ordinary and could be the natural step in creating a personality cult. The incumbent leader's father and grandfather all went through a mythologization process after they took power.
Besides the latest rescue operation, North Korean media reported last July that 60 people who were saved from rising flood waters shed tears of gratitude and praised their leader. At that time North Korea media said Kim personally ordered an aircraft to be sent to help the trapped people.
Meanwhile, experts following developments in the North said the need to earn foreign currency seems to be causing fishermen to risk their lives by going out to sea on old boats with little fuel and faulty communications equipment. In the past, North Koreans generally did not go to sea to catch fish during the winter months.
They said since Kim Jong-un took power, there has been a sudden increase in calls for all sectors to earn more hard currency.
The rescue of the four fishermen comes a day after Chinese media said 31 North Korean fishermen were saved by authorities earlier in the week after their boat ran aground.
Chinese Radio Network said the people were rescued from the boat that was in danger of capsizing and brought to safety. The boat had been drifting for some time before it got stuck near Dandong port, near the North Korea-China border.
Including these incidents, there have been at least 10 cases of North Korean fishermen drifting over the sea or found dead on foreign shores.
On Dec. 13, the South Korean Navy said it saved three people near Ulleung Island, who claimed they had been drifting for close to a month in the East Sea. All three were sent back to North Korea.
The Japan Coast Guard also rescued a handful of fishermen at sea or reported finding dead North Koreans on its shores in the past few months.
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