PYONGYANG, North Korea— As neighboring nations kept a close eye on missile movements in North Korea, people in the country’s capital began celebrating a series of April holidays, including the anniversary Thursday of their leader’s appointment as head of the ruling Worker’s Party.
Bracing for what South Korea’s foreign minister warned could be a test-fire of a medium-range missile, Seoul deployed three naval destroyers, an early warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system, a Defense Ministry official said in Seoul, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department rules.
Japan has deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors in key locations around Tokyo, while the South Korean and U.S. militaries raised their level of surveillance.
“North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions … skating very close to a dangerous line,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Washington. “Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation.”
North Korea is believed to be readying a missile dubbed the “Musudan,” named after the village where a northeastern launch pad is based. The missile has a range of 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles), and is designed to reach U.S. military installments in Guam and Japan, experts say.
Pyongyang has not announced plans to fire a missile, but has delivered increasingly bellicose rhetoric in recent weeks in anger over joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises being conducted in the South through the end of April. This week, it warned that nuclear war was imminent and urged foreign tourists in South Korea to take cover.
The threats are largely seen as rhetoric and an attempt by North Korea to pressure Washington and Seoul to change their policies toward Pyongyang, as well as to boost the military credentials of their young leader. North Korea does not have diplomatic relations with the U.S. and South Korea, its foes during the Korean War of the 1950s, and has pushed for a peace treaty to replace a 60-year-old armistice.
Despite the threats, South Korean officials sought to play down security fears, noting that no foreign governments have made any moves to evacuate their people from the capitals of either of the two Koreas. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was to arrive in Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean officials on the tensions.
“North Korea has continuously issued provocative threats and made efforts to raise tension on the Korean peninsula, … but the current situation is being managed safely and our and foreign governments have been calmly responding,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters Thursday.
Later Thursday, South Korea’s point man on North Korea, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, urged the North to stop raising tension, and to discuss the restart of operations at a joint factory complex that have been suspended in recent days.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Pyongyang, there was no sense of panic and the focus was on celebrating milestone anniversaries that highlight the Kim family’s hold on power in North Korea.
After marking late leader Kim Jong Il’s appointment to a top government post Tuesday, North Koreans were putting on their finest clothing to celebration his son Kim Jong Un’s ascension to first secretary of the Workers’ Party a year ago Thursday. The post is one of a slew of top titles he claimed in the months following his father’s December 2011 death.
A flower show, art performances and public dance parties are scheduled over the next few days in the lead-up to the nations’ biggest holiday, the April 15 birthday of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader.
No military parade or mass events were expected over the coming week, but North Korea historically uses major holidays to show off its military power, and analysts say Pyongyang could well mark the occasion with a provocative missile launch in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring the North from nuclear and missile activity.
Kim Un Chol, the 40-year-old head of a political unit at Pyongyang’s tobacco factory, said he had been discharged from the military but was willing to re-enlist if war breaks out. He said North Koreans were resolute.
“The people of Pyongyang are confident. They know we can win any war,” he told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “We now have nuclear weapons. So you won’t see any worry on people’s faces, even if the situation is tense.”
Kim Jong Il elevated the military’s role during his 17-year rule under a policy of “military first,” and the government devotes a significant chunk of its annual budget to defense. Human rights groups say the massive spending on the military and on development of missile and nuclear technology comes at the expense of most of its 24 million people. Two-thirds face chronic food shortages, according to the World Food Program.
North Koreans are taught from childhood to hate the U.S. and to gird against an invasion by “imperialists” intent on taking over the entire Korean Peninsula.
Guns and tanks are popular toys for children in the highly militarized society, and young North Koreans learn to fire guns when they are teenagers, residents say. Pyongyang sporadically holds civil air raid drills in which citizens practice blacking out their windows and seeking shelter. But no such drills have been held in recent months, residents said.
Last year, celebrations marking the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung included parades of tanks, missiles and soldiers, as well as the failed launch of a satellite-carrying rocket widely believed by the U.S. and its allies to be a test of ballistic missile technology.
A subsequent test in December was successful, and that was followed by the country’s third underground nuclear test on Feb. 12, possibly taking the regime closer to mastering the technology for mounting an atomic weapon on a missile.
Last week, Kim Jong Un enshrined the pursuit of nuclear weapons — which the North characterizes as a defense against the U.S. — as a national goal, along with improving the economy. North Korea also declared it would restart a mothballed nuclear complex.
The resulting U.N. sanctions and this spring’s annual U.S.-South Korean military drills, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for invasion, have been met with a string of threats from the North. Washington denies it has any plans to invade, and calls the exercises routine defensive drills.
At the same time, U.S. officials have expressed fears that the tense situation has the potential for missteps and miscalculations that could lead to war.
Citing the tensions, North Korea on Monday pulled more than 50,000 workers from the Kaesong industrial park, which combines South Korean technology and know-how with cheap North Korean labor. It was the first time that production was stopped at the decade-old factory park, the only remaining symbol of economic cooperation between the Koreas.
The North Korean move is an “unhelpful act for the future of the Korean nation and is inflicting serious pains on” South Korean companies and workers at Kaesong, the unification minister told a nationally televised news conference Thursday.
North Koreans told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that they will not be able to guarantee their safety and later warned that a nuclear war is imminent.
However, there has been no sign of diplomats leaving. The European Union said there was no need for member states to evacuate or relocate their diplomatic missions, but it called on North Korea to “refrain from further provocative declarations or action.”