North Koreans party while world sits on edge

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by CBS News

KMOV.com

Posted on April 15, 2013 at 7:48 AM

Updated Saturday, Nov 23 at 10:53 AM

Oblivious to international tensions over a possible North Korean missile launch, Pyongyang residents spilled into the streets Monday to celebrate a major national holiday, 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 parents pushed strollers with babies bundled up against the spring chill as residents of the isolated, impoverished nation began observing a three-day holiday.

There was no sense of panic in the North Korean capital, where very few locals have access to international broadcasts and foreign newspaper headlines speculating about an imminent missile test and detailing the international diplomacy under way to try to rein Pyongyang in, including a swing through the region by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to try to tamp down emotions and coordinate Washington's response with Beijing, North Korea's most important ally.

CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan, who was in Seoul and Tokyo to cover Kerry's visits, reported Monday that, given the Kim family's history of making provocative moves on important dates, the U.S. and its allies were watching closely for a missile test from the North.

Foreign governments have been struggling to assess how seriously to take North Korea's recent torrent of rhetoric -- including warnings of possible nuclear war -- as it expresses its anger over continuing U.S.-South Korea military maneuvers just across the border. Officials in South Korea, the United States and Japan say intelligence indicates that North Korean officials, fresh off an underground nuclear test in February, are ready to test a medium-range missile.

North Korea'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 was 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.

In Tokyo, the United States and Japan opened the door to new nuclear talks with North Korea if the saber-rattling country lowered tensions and honored past agreements, even as Pyongyang rejected South Korea's latest offer of dialogue as a "crafty trick."

Kerry told reporters North Korea would find "ready partners" in the United States if it began abandoning its nuclear program.

"If he will meet the obligations that we've all set out that are necessary -- stopping the provocations, ceasing the threats, moving away from the nuclearization, we are prepared to negotiate on a full range of issues," Kerry told Brennan in Tokyo. He told Brennan the U.S. would consider direct negotiations even if the North went ahead with another missile test.

The diplomats seemed to point the way for a possible revival of the six-nation talks that have been suspended for four years.

China has long pushed for the process to resume without conditions. But the U.S. and allies South Korea and Japan fear rewarding North Korea for its belligerence and the endless repetition of a cycle of tensions and failed talks that have prolonged the crisis.

Kerry's message of openness to diplomacy was clear, however unlikely the chances appeared that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's government would meet the American's conditions.

"I'm not going to be so stuck in the mud that an opportunity to actually get something done is flagrantly wasted because of a kind of predetermined stubbornness," he told U.S.-based journalists.

"You have to keep your mind open. But fundamentally, the concept is they're going to have to show some kind of good faith here so we're not going to around and around in the same-old, same-old," he said.

On another matter, Kerry told reporters he will stop in Chicago Monday on his way back from Japan to visit the parents of the young U.S. diplomat who was killed while delivering textbooks in southern Afghanistan earlier this month.

Kerry's 10-day overseas tour which started with tragedy when he learned of Anne Smedinghoff's death while readying to depart for Turkey on April 6.

At the time, a clearly affected Kerry contacted Smedinghoff's parents, Tom and Mary Beth, from Andrews Air Force Base. On Monday, he will fly in directly to see them.

Smedinghoff was just 25 when she and four other Americans were killed while walking from a military base to a nearby school. Two explosions occurred, apparently a suicide car bombing followed by a roadside blast.

An FBI investigation is in its preliminary stages.

In downtown Pyongyang Monday, people braved the cold, gray weather to line up in droves to lay bouquets of fake flowers at the bronze statues of Kim and his son, late leader Kim Jong Il, as they do for every major holiday in the highly militarized country, where loyalty to the Kims and to the state are drummed into citizens from an early age. They queued at roadside snack stands for rations of peanuts, a holiday tradition. Cheers and screams from a soccer match filled the air.

"Although the situation is tense, people have got bright faces and are very happy," said Han Kyong Sim, a drink stand worker.

Monday 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. 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.

While there has almost no sense of crisis in Pyongyang, North Korea's official posture toward the outside appears to be as hardline as ever.

On Sunday, it rejected South Korea's proposal to resolve tensions through dialogue. North Korea said it has no intention of talking with Seoul unless it abandons what it called the rival South's confrontational posture. South Korea's unification minister, Kim Hung-suk, called that response "very regrettable" on Monday, though other South Korean officials made it clear that the South still remains open to dialogue.

A top North Korean leader, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, also told a gathering of high officials Sunday that the North must bolster its nuclear arsenal further and "wage a stronger all-out action with the U.S. to cope with the prevailing wartime situation," according to footage from the North's state TV.

South Korea's defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, told a parliamentary committee in Seoul on Monday that North Korea remains ready to launch a missile from its east coast, though he declined to disclose how he got the information. He said that if the North fires the missile, it would time the launch to maximize the political and diplomatic effects. But he said he could not pinpoint a date.

He also said there's been no indication that the North would launch attacks against South Korea. But he said that based the rhetoric out of Pyongyang, the North could still stage limited attacks, depending on the political situation on the peninsula. He said South Korea will strongly deal with any provocations, but he urged the North to engage in dialogue.

Kerry, during his trip, has warned North Korea not to conduct a missile test, saying it will be an act of provocation that "will raise people's temperatures" and further isolate the country and its people.

North Korea's statements are commonly marked by alarming hyperbole and it has not ordered the small number of foreigners who are here to leave. Embassies in Pyongyang refused to comment on the suggestion they consider evacuating, referring questions back to their home countries. But there were no reports that any diplomatic missions had actually left.

North Korea has also taken the unusual move of pulling workers from the Kaesong factory complex on its side of the Demilitarized Zone, the last remaining symbols of inter-Korean rapprochement. The complex also was a key earner of foreign currency for cash-strapped North Korea where, according to the World Food Program, two thirds of the population struggles with food shortages.

North Korea has issued no specific warnings to ships and aircraft that a missile test is imminent, and is also continuing efforts to increase tourism.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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