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North Korea marks founder's birthday, issues more ire

Posted: April 16, 2013 6:00 a.m.
Updated: April 16, 2013 6:00 a.m.

South Korean army soldier stand guard on Unification Bridge in Paju, South Korea, near the border village of Panmunjom, Tuesday.

 

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea quietly marked a second day of celebrations for its first leader's birthday and issued prickly new rhetoric Tuesday threatening retaliation for what it sees as provocations by South Korea and the United States, who have been watching closely for signs the North may go ahead with a suspected medium-range missile launch.

State media said the Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army issued an ultimatum demanding an apology from South Korea for "hostile acts" and threatening that unspecified retaliatory actions would happen at any time. The statement followed a day of festivities in North Korea's capital that featured art performances, public dances and crowds thronging to giant bronze statues to pay homage to the late leader Kim Il Sung.

The angry ultimatum, relayed through the Korean Central News Agency, was sparked by a small protest in downtown Seoul, where effigies of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, late leader Kim Jong Il, were burned. Such protests are not unusual in South Korea and this one was likely more of a pretext for the North to react to calls that it join in dialogue with its neighbors than an actual cause for retaliation.

The North's statement said it would refuse any offers of talks with the South until it apologized for the "monstrous criminal act." North Korea often denounces such protests, but rarely in the name of the Supreme Command, which is headed by Kim Il Sung's grandson and North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un.

"If the puppet authorities truly want dialogue and negotiations, they should apologize for all anti-DPRK hostile acts, big and small, and show the compatriots their will to stop all these acts in practice," the statement said, referring to North Korea's official name.

South Korea's Defense Ministry said Tuesday it had received no such ultimatum, noting that there is no communications line between the two Koreas.

Pyongyang launched a rocket ahead of the last anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth, which was the centennial, but the holiday this year has been much more low-key, with Pyongyang residents gathering in performance halls and plazas and taking advantage of subsidized treats, like shaved ice and peanuts, despite unseasonably cold weather.

The calm in Pyongyang has been a striking contrast to the steady flow of threats North Korea has issued over ongoing military exercises between South Korea and the United States. Though the maneuvers, called Foal Eagle, are held regularly, North Korea was particularly angry over the inclusion this year of nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 fighters.

"The ultimatum is just North Korea's way of saying that it's not willing or ready to talk with the South," said Chang Yong-seok at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. "North Korea apparently wants to keep the cross-border relations tense for some time to come."

The ultimatum comes just after 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. Kerry said a missile test would be provocation that would further isolate the country and its impoverished people.

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. North Korea, which conducted a nuclear test in February, has already been slapped with strengthened U.N. sanctions for violating Security Council resolutions barring the regime from nuclear and missile activity.

To further coordinate their response, South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, will meet with President Barack Obama on May 7 at the White House. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the leaders would discuss the North Korean threat and efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States is open to dialogue but only if Pyongyang proves itself to be trustworthy.

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