North Korea's Kim Jong-un celebrates missile-free holiday

Officials in South Korea, the United States, and Japan say that intelligence indicates North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in February, is ready to test a medium-range missile.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
People watch TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (c.) at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday. Seemingly 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.

Despite ongoing tension on the Korean Peninsula and speculation that North Korea would use the occasion to flex its military muscle, North Korea celebrated its biggest holiday in relative calm. 

In honor of the 101st birthday of North Korea’s founding leader, the current leader, Kim Jong-un, made his first public appearance in nearly two weeks to pay his respects to his late grandfather at the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang. The embalmed bodies of his late father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather Kim Il-sung are both kept at the mausoleum. 

Analysts say Mr. Kim has been out of the public eye to bolster perceptions of military leadership. Since the United States and South Korea began their annual war exercises, the North’s military has been operating under wartime conditions, having declared the Korean War armistice that effectively ended the war 60 years ago, void. Joint military exercises between the US and South Korea are slated to continue until the end of this month, at which point, many expect the tense situation to cool.

“[Kim] will be away from the public until the end of the [US-South Korea] exercises because he is focusing on them. After that he will appear more often,” says Koh Yoo-hwan, North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University, in Seoul, South Korea.

This year’s celebrations went ahead without missile tests or heated rhetoric. The North often uses big holidays to show its military might, and many suspected that the Kim regime might use the occasion to test a mid-range missile. However, no big parades were scheduled, unlike last year when Pyongyang displayed missiles and Kim Jong-un made his first speech in public, a departure from his father, who did not speak in public but once or twice in his 17 years of rule. 

Though North Korea has not made any known moves toward military mobilization, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary session today that the South still suspects that the North is planning to hold a missile test soon.

"As North Korea is believed to provoke at any time depending on its hostile rhetoric and the political and military situation on the Korean Peninsula, we are fully prepared," said Kim Kwan-jin according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

In neighboring Japan, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and urged the North to take steps toward denuclearization. If it did so, he said Washington would be willing to engage with the North. But analysts say the North is unlikely to drop its nuclear ambitions. 

Last week, the South Korean government stated that it was interested in solving the ongoing work stoppage at the joint North-South Kaesong industrial park through dialogue. As part of the recent tensions, North Korea banned South Korean workers from entering the economic zone on April 3, and operations have been all but shut down since North Korea withdrew its workers on April 10.

But the North rejected the overture, calling the South’s proposal “an empty shell,” and asked for a proposal that would specify the points that would be discussed.

Analysts believe Pyongyang wants to be recognized as a nuclear-armed state before signing any peace treaty. 

Due to the touchy situation and the South Korean government’s continued interest in dialogue, a group of anti-North Korea nongovernmental organizations, staffed by many North Korean refugees who have settled in the South, decided not to launch balloons filled with leaflets denouncing the North Korean regime.

A few hundred activists had planned to send on Monday around 100,000 leaflets, along with chocolate snacks and underwear, which are scarce in North Korea, over the demilitarized zone to North Korea but were dissuaded by South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which argued that the launch would only further antagonize the North and make dialogue more difficult.

The activists released a statement on Sunday saying they supported the South Korean government’s moves for dialogue and would cancel this launch, but would go ahead with a launch at a later date if the North rejects another proposal for talks.

North Korea announced on its propaganda website that if the launch went ahead, South Korea would face a “catastrophic situation” in response.

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