PYONGYANG, North Korea >> North Koreans celebrated the birthday of their first leader today by dancing in plazas and snacking on peanuts, with little hint of the fiery language that has kept the international community fearful that a missile launch may be imminent.
Pyongyang fired off a rocket ahead of the last anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth — the centennial — but this time the day was simply the start of a two-day holiday for Pyongyang residents who spilled into the streets.
Girls in red and pink jackets skipped along streets festooned with celebratory banners and flags and boys on inline skates took a break to slurp up bowls of shaved ice.
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 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 today 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.
He said Britain does not see an immediate need to draw down embassy staff, but is keeping that under constant review. He added that, from discussions with other governments, the U.K. does not believe any foreign embassy in Pyongyang plans to close.
While concerns over North Korea continued to dominate headlines abroad, Pyongyang’s own media gave little indication today 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 U.S. 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 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 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 outside Pyongyang Indoor Stadium for North Korea’s version of square dancing.
Today 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.
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.
The North’s military issued an ultimatum demanding an apology from South Korea for "hostile acts" and threatening that unspecified retaliatory actions would happen at any time. The military, through the KCNA state media agency, took issue with a protest in downtown Seoul, where a portrait of the North’s late leader, Kim Jong-il, was reportedly burned. It said it would refuse any offers of talks with the South until it apologized for the "monstrous criminal act."
Seoul had pressed North Korea to discuss restarting operations at a joint factory park on the border and President Park Geun-hye has stressed peace opportunities after taking power from her more hard-line predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.
A top North Korean leader, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, told officials Sunday that the North must bolster its nuclear arsenal further and "wage a stronger all-out action with the U.S. 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 Demilitarized 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 Program.
On Sunday, Pyongyang rejected Seoul proposal to resolve tensions through dialogue. A Unification Ministry spokesman in Seoul, Kim Hyung-suk, called the response "very regrettable" on Monday.
Associated Press writer Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.