North Korea keeps region guessing on key national holiday

April 15, 2013

North Korea left its neighbors and the United States in a tense holding pattern Monday, neither executing a much-hinted-at missile test nor showing interest in international offers of dialogue.

Analysts and government officials in Seoul and Washington had hoped for a sign from the North on what is a symbolically significant holiday in the Stalinist country: the anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung. The North sometimes marks the holiday with military parades, speeches and — last year — a missile launch in the run-up.

But Monday, the secretive ­family-run nation paid little attention to the regional tensions it had sparked with weeks of threats. The Rodong Sinmun, a state-run newspaper, ramped down its ­anti-U.S. rhetoric, focusing instead on a midnight visit by new leader Kim Jong Un to the mausoleum where his father and grandfather are buried.

Midrange missiles positioned near North Korea’s eastern shoreline for more than a week remained in place, despite predictions from Seoul’s Defense Ministry that they would be test-fired ahead of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

To mark the holiday, North Koreans wore their best outfits and offered bouquets to statues of Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 and was named posthumously as the North’s “eternal president.” Unlike in past years, no military parade rolled through Pyongyang’s wide streets. Instead, there was an international marathon Sunday — featuring runners from 10 countries, including Ukraine, Italy, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia, according to the state-run news agency — and an art festival. South Korea’s defense minister said he saw no evidence that the nation was preparing for war.

Hannah Barraclough, an employee of Koryo Tours, which leads travel groups into the North, said, “I saw more tanks last year when I was here.” She was interviewed from Pyongyang by the tour company, which then posted the interview on YouTube.

“In fact, there is less sense of readying for some kind of war than I saw in March,” on a previous visit, Barraclough said. “In March when I was here, there were signs of civilians doing military-type training. . . . I haven’t seen any of that this time.”

The calm atmosphere in Pyongyang lends credence to the theory, shared by many security analysts, that the North has been raising tensions chiefly as a way to draw U.S. attention or shape South Korean policy. But the North could also be trying to drum up the war atmosphere for domestic reasons — to build support for Kim Jong Un or as a way to rationalize sacrifice from citizens who are chronically underfed and impoverished.

Since February, North Korea has conducted an underground test of a nuclear bomb, announced its withdrawal from the armistice that ended the Korean War, hinted at the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States and withdrawn its workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint facility that was the last major link of cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang.

In recent days, both the United States and South Korea have reached out to the North, expressing interest in talks. The South’s offer — primarily to discuss Kaesong — was dismissed by the North as a “crafty trick.” The apparent rejection, revealed by North Korea’s state-run news agency, said dialogue would be possible only if South Korea dropped its confrontational policy.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John F. Kerry opened the door for talks with the North, but only if the nation shows signs of denuclearization, a step Pyongyang says it will never take.

“The United States remains open to authentic and credible negotiations on denuclearization, but the burden is on Pyongyang,” Kerry said Monday in a speech to university students in Tokyo.

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