Oblivious to international tensions over a possible North Korean missile launch, Pyongyang residents spilled into the streets yesterday to celebrate a major national holiday, the birthday of their first leader, North Korean founder 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 diplomacy under way to try to rein Pyongyang in.
US Secretary of State John Kerry toured the region for four days through yesterday to try to tamp down emotions and coordinate Washington’s response with Beijing, North Korea’s main 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 US-South Korea military maneuvers just across the border. Officials in South Korea, the US 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 yesterday of how high the tensions are.
The Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party newspaper, featured photographs and coverage of North Korean 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 was opened to the public yesterday, 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 Department of the 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 North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang. It is a scene repeated for every major holiday in North Korea, where loyalty to the Kims and to the state are drummed into citizens from an early age. They lined up 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.
Yesterday was the start of the new year according to North Korea’s juche calendar, which begins with Kim Il-sung’s birth in 1912.