David Guttenfelder, Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea — As the world watches to see what North Korea's next move will be in a high-stakes game of brinksmanship with the United States, residents of its capital aren't hunkering down in bunkers and preparing for the worst. Instead, they are out on the streets en masse getting ready for the birthday of national founder Kim Il Sung — the biggest holiday of the year.
The festivities leading up to Kim's birthday come amid fears that North Korea may be planning to test launch a new missile in retaliation for what it claims are provocative war games by U.S. and South Korean troops just across the Korean border. Even at such a seemingly innocuous setting as a flower show in Kim's honor, North Korea's warning that it is prepared to strike back if pushed too far is on prominent display.
This year's exhibition of "Kimilsungia" flowers — which North Koreans claim their scientists have bred into the most beautiful orchids in the world — is built around mockups of red-tipped missiles, slogans hailing the military and reminders of the threats that North Koreans feel are all around them.
"It is because we have a nuclear deterrent like nuclear weapons that we are able to live our normal lives and have a beautiful flower exhibition like this," said Kim Sung Sim, a Pyongyang greenhouse worker who contributed to the display, which opened Friday.
The escalation of tensions comes as North Korea is also celebrating a slew of anniversaries for its young leader, Kim Jong Un, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il. He was named head of the Workers' Party a year ago Thursday, and marks his first year as head of the National Defense Commission, the top government body, on Saturday. The birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on Monday is the most important of the national holidays designed to cement loyalty to the ruling Kim family.
Whether this year's celebrations will include a missile launch or some other action that could escalate the tensions remains to be seen.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived in Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean officials, warned the North not to test fire a missile.
"If Kim Jong Un decides to launch a missile, whether it's across the Sea of Japan or some other direction, he will be choosing willfully to ignore the entire international community," Kerry told reporters.
He said the test would be a "huge mistake" for Kim.
A senior U.S military official told reporters there was no sign of military movements in the North and no real prospect of war. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about military intelligence.
But that doesn't mean North Korea won't put on some sort of a military show.
During last year's celebrations, North Korea failed in an attempt to send a satellite into space aboard a long-range rocket. The U.S. and its allies criticized the launch as a covert test of ballistic missile technology. North Korea tried again in December and succeeded. That was followed by the country's third underground nuclear test on Feb. 12.
Officials in Seoul and Washington say Pyongyang appears to be preparing to test fire a medium-range missile designed to be capable of reaching Guam. Foreign experts have dubbed the missile the "Musudan" after the northeastern village where North Korea has a launch pad, and say it has a range of 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles).
A medium- or long-range missile test would be particularly significant because North Korea may now be capable of arming a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded in an assessment revealed Thursday. Kerry refused to comment specifically Friday on that intelligence report, but said the North is still some time away from having a nuclear bomb that is "small, light and diversified."
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