PYONGYANG, North Korea — As the world braced for a provocative missile launch by North Korea, with newscasts worldwide playing up tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the center of the storm was strangely calm.
The focus in Pyongyang on Wednesday was less on preparing for war and more on beautifying the capital ahead of the nation’s biggest holiday: the April 15 birthday of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Soldiers put down their rifles to blanket the barren ground with sod, and students picked up shovels to help plant trees.
But the impoverished, tightly controlled nation that has historically used major holidays to draw the world’s attention by showing off its military power could well mark the date by testing a missile designed to strike U.S. military installations in Japan and Guam.
South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, said the prospect of a medium-range missile launch is “considerably high.” As a precaution, 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 Korean officials have not announced plans to launch a missile in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring Pyongyang from nuclear and missile activity. But they told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that they would not be able to guarantee their safety starting Wednesday and urged tourists in the South to take cover, warning that a nuclear war is imminent. Most diplomats and foreign residents in both capitals appeared to be staying put.
The European Union said there was no need for member states to evacuate or relocate their diplomatic missions, but it called on the North to “refrain from further provocative declarations or action.”
The threats are largely seen as rhetoric and an attempt by North Korea to scare foreigners into urging their governments to pressure Washington and Seoul to change their policies toward Pyongyang, as well as to boost the military credentials of its young leader, Kim Jong Un. The North does not have diplomatic relations with the United States and the South, its foes in the Korean War of the 1950s, and has pushed for a peace treaty to replace an armistice.
On the streets of Pyongyang, there was no sense of panic Wednesday. The city sporadically holds 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.