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After weeks of North Korean fury, calm on key holiday

By JEAN H. LEE, AP Published: April 15, 2013
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PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Koreans celebrated the birthday of their first leader Monday by dancing in plazas and snacking on peanuts, with little hint of the fiery bombast that has kept the international community fearful that a missile launch may be imminent.

Pyongyang fired off a rocket ahead of the last anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth — the centennial — but this time the day was simply the start of a two-day holiday for Pyongyang residents who spilled into the streets.

Girls in red and pink jackets skipped along streets festooned with celebratory banners and flags and boys on inline skates took a break to slurp up bowls of shaved ice.

There was no sense of panic in the North Korean capital, where very few locals have access to international broadcasts and foreign newspapers speculating about an imminent missile launch and detailing the international diplomacy under way to try to rein Pyongyang in.

Elsewhere in the region, however, the focus remained on the threat of a launch as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a tour to coordinate Washington's response with Beijing, North Korea's most important ally, as well as with Seoul and Tokyo.

In Seoul, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee Monday that North Korea still appeared poised to launch a missile from its east coast, though he declined to disclose the source of his information.

Kerry warned North Korea not to conduct a missile test, saying it would be provocation that “will raise people's temperatures” and further isolate the country and its impoverished people. He said Sunday that the U.S. was “prepared to reach out,” but that Pyongyang must first bring down tensions and honor previous agreements.

Foreign governments have been trying to assess how seriously to take North Korea's recent torrent of rhetoric warning of war if the U.S. and South Korea do not stop holding joint military maneuvers just across the border.

Officials in South Korea, the United States and Japan say intelligence indicates that North Korea, fresh off an underground nuclear test in February, appears ready to launch a medium-range missile. North Korea has already been slapped with strengthened U.N. sanctions for violating Security Council resolutions barring the regime from nuclear and missile activity.

But while the matter continued to dominate headlines abroad, Pyongyang's own media gave little indication Monday of how high the tensions are.

The Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party newspaper, featured photos and coverage of current leader Kim Jong Un's overnight visit to the Kumsusan mausoleum to pay respects to his grandfather. There was only one line at the end of the article vowing to bring down the “robber-like U.S. imperialists.”

Kim Jong Un's renovation of the memorial palace that once served as his grandfather's presidential offices opened to the public on Monday, the vast cement plaza replaced by fountains, park benches, trellises and tulips. Stretches of green lawn were marked by small signs indicating which businesses — including the Foreign Trade Bank recently added to a U.S. Treasury blacklist — and government agencies donated funds to help pay for the landscaping.

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