April 12, 2013

In N. Korea, flowers and missiles on display

Jean H. Lee / The Associated Press

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Elaborate floral displays featured mini replicas of red-tipped missiles and long-range rockets at an exhibition that opened Friday in Pyongyang, underlining North Korean pride in an illicit arsenal that has put the region on edge.

North Korea has warned that it has weapons "on standby" and aimed at its foes if provoked, though it has not revealed specific plans to fire a missile or carry out another nuclear test.

However, as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean officials, a senior U.S military official told reporters there was no sign of military movements backing up the threat. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about military intelligence.

For weeks, North Korea has issued a torrent of war cries seen outside Pyongyang as an effort to raise fears and pressure Seoul and Washington into changing their North Korea policies, and to show the North Korean people that their young leader is strong enough to stand up to powerful foes.

U.S. and South Korean troops have been conducting annual joint military drills in the South since early March, including bringing out nuclear-capable stealth bombers and fighter jets in what the Air Force acknowledged was a deliberate show of force.

The escalation of tensions comes as North Korea is celebrating a slew of first 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 will mark his first year as head of the National Defense Commission, the top government body, on Saturday.

North Koreans also have begun celebrating the April 15 birthday of Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The birthday is considered the most important of national holidays designed to cement loyalty to the ruling Kim family.

At Mansu Hill, where massive bronze statues of the two late leaders overlook the city, Pyongyang citizens were busy Friday morning scrubbing the steps up to the plaza with soap and water to prepare for the stream of people who will be paying their respects to the Kims.

At Kim Il Sung Stadium, schoolchildren being inducted into the Korean Children's Union, a political organization for young North Koreans, pledged to study hard and to build up strength to defend their nation. Retired military officers helped them tie on red scarves to complete the ritual.

Loyalty to the Kims and to the state are drummed into North Koreans from an early age in this highly patriotic, militarized country, where banners along roadsides read "Defend to the death" and call on citizens to become "human bombs" for leader Kim Jong Un.

Though few North Koreans have access to international media, and instead get their news from state media, they said they were aware of the tensions with the U.S.

"The U.S is our sworn enemy," said Ri So Hyang, a 13-year-old taking part in the Children's Union ceremony. She said her brother had just enlisted. "I hope he'll fight well against the U.S. imperialists since I cannot."

At the flower exhibition, which featured massive displays incorporating the orchid named after Kim Il Sung, a guide called the current political situation "complicated." Photo backdrops and mock replicas featured an array of missiles — including models believed to be medium-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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