David Guttenfelder, Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea — The prospect of a North Korean missile launch is "considerably high," South Korea's foreign minister told lawmakers Wednesday as Pyongyang calmly prepared to mark the April 15 birthday of its founder, historically a time when it seeks to draw the world's attention with dramatic displays of military power.
The missile is expected to be a medium-range missile with a range of 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles) capable of flying over Japan, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told lawmakers in Seoul. Earlier, a Defense Ministry official said preparations appeared to be complete, and that the launch could take place at any time.
Yun said Seoul was bracing for the test-fire of a ballistic missile dubbed "Musudan" by foreign experts after the name of the northeastern village where North Korea has a launch pad. Experts said the Musudan is mainly built to reach the U.S. territory of Guam though it can also place U.S. military installations in Japan in its striking range.
North Korean officials have not announced plans to launch a missile, but have told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that they will not be able to guarantee their safety starting Wednesday. Officials also have urged tourists in South Korea to take cover, warning that a nuclear war is imminent. However, most diplomats and foreign residents appeared to be staying put.
The threats are largely seen as rhetoric and an attempt by North Korea to scare foreigners into pressing their governments to pressure Washington and Seoul to change their policies toward Pyongyang, as well as to boost the military credentials of North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un. North Korea does not have diplomatic relations with the U.S. and South Korea, its foes during the Korean War of the 1950s.
On the streets of Pyongyang, the focus was less on preparing for war and more on beautifying the city ahead of the nation's biggest holiday. Soldiers laid blankets of sod to liven up a city still coming out of a long, cold winter; gardeners got down on their knees to plant flowers and trees, and students marched off to school — ordinary springtime activities belying the high tensions.
Downtown, schoolchildren headed toward the towering statues of the two late leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, dragging brooms behind them. The brooms are used to sweep the plaza where the bronze statues stand on a hilltop overlooking Pyongyang. A group of women with coats thrown over traditional dresses rushed through the spring chill after leaving a rehearsal for a dance set to take place for Kim Il Sung's birthday celebrations.
At the base of Mansu Hill, a group of young people held a small rally to pledge their loyalty to Kim Jong Un and to sing the Kim ode "We Will Defend the Marshal With Our Lives."
Kim Un Chol, the 40-year-old head of a political unit at Pyongyang's tobacco factory, said he had been discharged from the military but was willing to re-enlist if war breaks out. He said North Koreans were resolute.
"The people of Pyongyang are confident. They know we can win any war," he told The Associated Press. "We now have nuclear weapons. So you won't see any worry on people's faces, even if the situation is tense."
North Korea sporadically holds civil air raid drills during which citizens practice blacking out their windows and seeking shelter. But no such drills have been held in recent months, local residents said.
Last year, the days surrounding the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current ruler, was marked by parades of tanks, goose-stepping soldiers and missiles, as well as the failed launch of a satellite-carrying rocket widely believed by the U.S. and its allies in the West to be a test of ballistic missile technology. A subsequent test in December went off successfully, and that was followed by the country's third underground nuclear test on Feb. 12 this year, possibly taking the regime closer to mastering the technology for mounting an atomic bomb on a missile.
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