North Koreans oblivious to tensions

2013-04-15 13:09
A boy holds a toy gun while his grandmother watches a mass folk dance in front of the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Alexander F Yuan, AP)

A boy holds a toy gun while his grandmother watches a mass folk dance in front of the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Alexander F Yuan, AP)

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Pyongyang — Oblivious to international tensions over a possible North Korean missile launch, Pyongyang residents spilled into the streets on Monday to celebrate a major national holiday, the birthday of their first leader, Kim Il-Sung.

Girls in red and pink jackets skipped along streets festooned with celebratory banners and flags and boys on inline skates took a break from skating to slurp up bowls of shaved ice as North Koreans began observing a three-day holiday.

There was no sense of panic in the North Korean capital, where very few locals have access to international broadcasts and foreign newspapers speculating about an imminent missile launch and detailing the international diplomacy under way to try to rein Pyongyang in.

Elsewhere in the region, however, the focus remained on the threat of a missile launch as US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a tour to co-ordinate Washington's response with Beijing, North Korea's most important ally, as well as Seoul and Tokyo.

In Seoul, South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee on Monday that North Korea still appeared poised to launch a missile from its east coast, though he declined to disclose the source of his information.

Kerry warned North Korea not to conduct a missile test, saying it would be provocation that "will raise people's temperatures" and further isolate the country and its impoverished people. He said on Sunday that the US was "prepared to reach out", but that Pyongyang must first bring down tensions and honour previous agreements.

Ready for launch

Foreign governments have been trying to assess how seriously to take North Korea's recent torrent of rhetoric warning of war if the US and South Korea do not stop holding joint military manoeuvres just across the border.

Officials in South Korea, the United States and Japan say intelligence indicates that North Korea, fresh off an underground nuclear test in February, appears ready to launch a medium-range missile.

North Korea has already been slapped with strengthened UN sanctions for violating Security Council resolutions barring the regime from nuclear and missile activity.

But while the matter continued to dominate headlines abroad, Pyongyang's own media gave little indication on Monday of how high the tensions are.

The Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party newspaper, featured photos and coverage of current leader Kim Jong-Un's overnight visit to the Kumsusan mausoleum to pay respects to his grandfather. There was only one line at the end of the article vowing to bring down the "robber-like US imperialists".

Kim Jong-Un's renovation of the memorial palace that once served as his grandfather's presidential offices opened to the public on Monday, the vast cement plaza replaced by fountains, park benches, trellises and tulips. Stretches of green lawn were marked by small signs indicating which businesses — including the Foreign Trade Bank recently added to a US Treasury blacklist — and government agencies donated funds to help pay for the landscaping.

Largest basket from Kim

Starting from early in the morning, residents dressed in their finest clothing began walking from all parts of Pyongyang to lay flowers and bow before the bronze statues of Kim and his son, late leader Kim Jong-Il, as the mournful Song of General Kim Il-Sung played over and over.

Their birthdays are considered the most important holidays of the year in North Korea, where reverence for the Kims is drummed into the people from the time they are toddlers. The largest basket of flowers at Mansu Hill was from Kim Jong-Un, whose elaborate offering was cordoned off with ropes.

With that ritual out of the way, many stopped at food stalls set up at the base of Mansu Hill to warm up with tea and snacks. They queued at roadside snack stands for rations of peanuts, a holiday tradition.

"Although the situation is tense, people have got bright faces and are very happy," said Han Kyong Sim, who works at one of the beverage stands.

Later, as the day warmed up, scores of young women in a rainbow of sparkling traditional dresses thronged the parking lot for North Korea's version of square dancing.

Monday marked the official start of the new year according to North Korea's "juche" calendar, which begins with the day of Kim Il-Sung's birth in 1912. But unlike last year, the centennial of his birthday, there are no big parades in store this week, and North Koreans were planning to use it as a day to catch up with friends and family.

As hardline as ever

North Korea is believed to be saving its parades and big parties for 27 July, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and the 65th anniversary in September of the founding of the nation.

But while there was little sense of crisis in Pyongyang, North Korea's official posture toward the outside appeared to be as hardline as ever.

A top North Korean leader, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, told officials on Sunday that the North must bolster its nuclear arsenal further and "wage a stronger all-out action with the US to cope with the prevailing wartime situation", according to state TV.

North Korea has also pulled workers from the Kaesong factory complex on its side of the Demilitarised Zone, the last remaining symbols of inter-Korean rapprochement, in a pointed jab at South Korea. South Korean-run factories provided more than 50 000 jobs for North Korea, where two-thirds of the population struggle with food shortages, according to the World Food Programme.

On Sunday, Pyongyang rejected Seoul proposal to resolve tensions through dialogue. A Unification Ministry spokesperson in Seoul, Kim Hyung-suk, called the response "very regrettable" on Monday.

Read more on:    kim jong-un  |  john kerry  |  south korea  |  north korea  |  north korea nuclear programme

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