Valdosta Daily Times

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April 16, 2013

After weeks of N. Korean fury, calm on key holiday

PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Koreans danced in plazas and snacked on peanuts as part of holiday festivities while the Supreme Command led by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered more of the fiery language that has made the international community wary of an imminent missile launch or other provocation.

Early Tuesday, state media said the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army issued an ultimatum to South Korea demanding an apology for “hostile acts” and threatening retaliation at any time. Such warnings are routine but do not often come from North Korea’s top leadership.

In Seoul, the Defense Ministry said it received no such ultimatum, noting that there is no line of communication between the Koreas.

Meanwhile, North Koreans were taking a second day off to mark the birthday of late President Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder. Monday’s celebrations capital featured colorful dance parties, soccer matches and the traditional laying of flowers at his statue. Families were enjoying the day off, children scooting around on inline skates and slurping up shaved ice treats.

Kim Jong Un on Monday presided over basketball and volleyball competitions between military academies billed as “anti-American games” by the state media. Later, he and other top officials watched an orchestral performance at a new theater in downtown Pyongyang.

The birthday passed without any major provocations as feared. Last year, Pyongyang fired a rocket in the days leading up to Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

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 in Pyongyang.

Elsewhere in the region, however, the focus remained on the threat of a launch as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a tour to coordinate Washington’s response with Beijing, North Korea’s most important ally, as well as with Seoul and Tokyo.

In Seoul, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee 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 Sunday that the U.S. was “prepared to reach out,” but that Pyongyang must first bring down tensions and honor previous agreements.

Foreign governments have been trying to assess how seriously to take North Korea’s recent torrent of rhetoric warning of war if the U.S. and South Korea do not stop holding joint military maneuvers 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 U.N. sanctions for violating Security Council resolutions barring the regime from nuclear and missile activity.

North Korea has warned that the situation has grown so tense it cannot guarantee the safety of foreigners in the country and said embassies in Pyongyang should think about their evacuation plans. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday that although there is reason for concern over the “frenetic and bellicose” rhetoric, Britain believes there has been “no immediate increased risk or danger” to those living in or travelling to North Korea.

Kim Jong Un’s renovation of the memorial palace that once served as his grandfather’s presidential offices opened to the public, 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 U.S. Treasury blacklist — and government agencies donated funds to help pay for the landscaping.

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 Gen. Kim Il Sung” played repeatedly.

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

With that ritual done, 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 the 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 outside Pyongyang Indoor Stadium 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.

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

The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war because that three-year Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

North Korea has sought in recent weeks to jab at South Korea for carrying out joint military drills with the U.S.

After terminating a military hotline between the two Koreas, North Korea pulled workers from the Kaesong factory complex on its side of the Demilitarized Zone, the last remaining symbols of inter-Korean rapprochement. South Korean-run factories had provided more than 50,000 jobs for North Korea, where the World Food Program says two-thirds of the population struggle with food shortages.

Seoul has pressed North Korea to discuss restarting operations in Kaesong.

But Pyongyang rejected the olive branch, saying “If the puppet authorities truly want dialogue and negotiations, they should apologize” to the North for what it called “hostile acts, big and small,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

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