PYONGYANG, North Korea —
Oblivious to international tensions over a possible North Korean missile launch, Pyongyang residents spilled into the streets 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 parents pushed strollers with babies bundled up against the spring chill as residents of the isolated, impoverished nation 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 newspaper headlines speculating about an imminent missile launch and detailing the international diplomacy under way to try to rein Pyongyang in. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry toured the region for four days through Monday to try to tamp down emotions and coordinate Washington's response with Beijing, North Korea's most important ally.
Foreign governments have been struggling to assess how seriously to take North Korea's recent torrent of rhetoric — including warnings of possible nuclear war — as it expresses its anger over continuing U.S.-South Korea military maneuvers just across the border. Officials in South Korea, the United States and Japan say intelligence indicates that North Korean officials, fresh off an underground nuclear test in February, are ready to launch a medium-range missile.
North Korea's own media gave little indication 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 U.S. imperialists."
Kim Jong Un's renovation of the memorial palace that once served as his grandfather's presidential offices was 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.
Braving the cold, gray weather, people lined up in droves to lay bouquets of fake flowers at the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and his son, late leader Kim Jong Il, in downtown Pyongyang. It's a scene repeated for every major holiday in North Korea, where loyalty to the Kims and to the state are drummed in citizens from an early age.
They queued at roadside snack stands for rations of peanuts, a holiday tradition. Cheers and screams from a soccer match filled the air.
"Although the situation is tense, people have got bright faces and are very happy," said Han Kyong Sim, a drink stand worker.
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.
But while there has been almost no sense of crisis in Pyongyang, North Korea's official posture toward the outside appears to be as hardline as ever.
On Sunday, it rejected South Korea's proposal to resolve tensions through dialogue. North Korea said it has no intention of talking with Seoul unless it abandons what it called the rival South's confrontational posture. South Korea's unification ministry spokesman, Kim Hyung-suk, called that response "very regrettable" on Monday, but said that the South remains open to dialogue.
A top North Korean leader, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, also told a gathering of high 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 footage from the North's state TV.
South Korea's defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, told a parliamentary committee in Seoul on Monday that North Korea still appears poised to launch a missile from its east coast, though he declined to disclose how he got the information.
Many observers had predicted North Korea would launch the missile ahead of Monday's holiday, because similar past launches have come ahead of key national commemorations.
The leadership may have shied away from doing that because reports of a launch drew too much scrutiny and prompted U.S. and South Korean forces to go on alert, said Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in South Korea. The North may choose instead to launch it once tensions have calmed down a bit, he said.
"I think they didn't launch the missile because they may be worried it would be shot down," Kim said, adding that later "North Korea may abruptly fire the missile early one morning."
Kerry, during his trip, warned North Korea not to conduct a missile test, saying it will be an act of provocation that "will raise people's temperatures" and further isolate the country and its people. In Tokyo on Sunday, Kerry said the U.S. was "prepared to reach out" but Pyongyang must first lower tensions and honor previous agreements.
North Korea has also pulled workers from the Kaesong factory complex on its side of the Demilitarized Zone, the last remaining symbol 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.
North Korea has issued no specific warnings to ships and aircraft that a missile test is imminent, and is also continuing efforts to increase tourism.