North Koreans set for holiday amid nuclear threats

AS THE world braces for a provocative missile launch by North Korea amid its threats of “thermo­nuclear war”, Pyongyang, the centre of the storm, remains strangely calm.

The focus in the North Korean capital yesterday was less on preparing for war and more on beautifying the city ahead of the nation’s biggest holiday – the 15 April birthday of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

In the city centre, soldiers put down their rifles to blanket the barren ground with turf and students helped plant trees.

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The North’s KCNA news agency said people were “doing their best to decorate cities”. Another dispatch reported a “production upsurge” in the coal, steel, iron and timber industries, with figures showing a quarterly plan set by authorities had been “overfulfilled”.

But a nation that has in the past used major holidays to draw the world’s attention by showing off its military power could well mark this occasion by testing a missile. South Korea’s foreign minister yesterday said the prospect of a launch is “considerably high”.

Yun Byung-se said North Korea could launch a Musudan medium-range missile “at any time from now”.

The trajectory of any such missile, if launched, is unclear. But it is unlikely to be aimed directly at the South. The Musudan has a range of 2,100 miles or more, according to South Korea, which would put Japan within range and may even threaten US military bases on Guam.

North Korean officials have not announced plans to launch a missile, which would be in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions barring Pyongyang from nuclear and missile activity.

But they have told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that they will not be able to guarantee their safety starting from yesterday and have urged tourists in South Korea to flee, warning that a nuclear war is imminent. However, most diplomats and foreign residents in both capitals appeared to be staying put.

The threats are largely seen as rhetoric and an attempt by impoverished North Korea to scare foreigners into pressing their governments to change their policies toward Pyongyang, as well as to boost the military credentials of North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.

On the streets of Pyongyang yesterday, there was also no sense of panic. Schoolchildren marched toward the towering statues of the two late leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, dragging brooms to sweep the hilltop plaza where they sit, overlooking the city. Women threw coats over traditional dresses to keep out the spring chill after rehearsing for a dance planned for Kim Il-sung’s birthday celebrations.

At the base of Mansu Hill, a group of young people held a small rally to pledge their loyalty to Kim Jong-un and to sing the Kim ode We Will Defend the Marshal With Our Lives.

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 defence. Human rights groups say the massive spending on the military and on development of missile and nuclear technology comes at the expense of looking after most of its 24 million people. Two-thirds of the population face chronic food shortages, according to the World Food Programme.

Last year, the days surrounding the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current ruler, were marked by parades of tanks, soldiers and missiles, plus the failed launch of a satellite-carrying rocket widely believed to be a test of ballistic missile technology.

Kim Un Chol, 40, 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.

“The people of Pyongyang are confident. They know we can win any war,” he said. “We now have nuclear weapons. So you won’t see any worry.”