Pyongyang parties as international pressure mounts
North Korea celebrates national holiday as Kerry stresses US will 'reach out' for talks while pressure mounts over missile threats
Oblivious to international tensions over a possible North Korean missile launch, Pyongyang residents spilled into the streets yesterday to celebrate the birthday of their first leader, Kim Il-sung.
Girls in red and pink jackets skipped along streets festooned with celebratory banners and flags and boys took a break from skating to slurp up bowls of shaved ice as North Koreans began observing a three-day national holiday.
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 in Pyongyang.
But elsewhere in the region, the focus remained on the threat of a missile launch as US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a tour to co-ordinate Washington's response with Beijing, North Korea's most important ally, as well as Seoul and Tokyo.
In Seoul, South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee yesterday 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 pushed a message of dialogue with North Korea yesterday, stressing a willingness to "reach out" to Pyongyang.
The top US diplomat, who met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the final leg of his trip in Tokyo yesterday, declared that Washington was open to "authentic and credible" negotiations. "But the burden is on Pyongyang," he said, adding that the North had to take "meaningful steps" to show it would honour past commitments.
Already assured of the support of US allies South Korea and Japan, Kerry said a commitment he received from Beijing to work together to reduce tensions showed the world was speaking with one voice.
"One thing is certain: we are united. There can be no confusion on this point," Kerry maintained.
Yesterday marked the official start of the new year according to North Korea's "juche" calendar, which begins with the day of Kim Il-sung's birth in 1912.
Starting from early in the morning, residents dressed in their finest clothing began walking from all parts of Pyongyang to lay flowers and bow before the bronze statues of Kim and his son, the late leader Kim Jong-il, as the mournful Song of General Kim Il-sung played over and over. But unlike last year, the centennial of his birthday, there are no big parades in store this week, and North Koreans were planning to use it as a day to catch up with friends and family.
North Korea is believed to be saving its parades and big parties for July 27, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and the 65th anniversary in September of the founding of the nation. In Tokyo, Kerry touched on broader security concerns in the region and defended the re-orientation of US foreign policy towards Asia.
The "rebalancing" of the US towards Asia has caused unease in Beijing, which has tended to focus on the military dimensions of the strategy and to view it as a way to contain China's rise.
Kerry sought to ease Chinese concerns even as he offered reassurance to US allies such as Japan and South Korea that the US wasn't going anywhere.
"Some people might be sceptical of America's commitment to this region," Kerry told students at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
"My commitment to you is that as a Pacific nation that takes our Pacific partnership seriously, we will continue to build on our active and enduring presence."
While signalling US support for its Asian allies, Kerry also said he did not want territorial disputes between Japan and China to jeopardise the region's security and prosperity.
"It is time also to put long-festering territorial pursuits behind us," he said.
"The stakes are far too high and the global economy is too fragile for anyone to allow these inherited problems to divide the region and to inflame it."
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters