After weeks of tension, North Korea has options to improve relations with the US and South Korea – but it is unlikely to be tempted by Washington’s offer to restart negotiations on its nuclear programme.
After a day of festivities to mark the 101st birthday of its first leader, North Korea today offered new hostile rhetoric against the US and South Korea, which are watching closely for signs whether it will conduct a medium-range missile test in defiance of international concerns.
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, relayed through the KCNA state media agency, came after 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 renewed rhetoric was sparked by a 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 probably gave the North a pretext to react negatively to calls for joining in dialogue with its neighbours, rather than an actual cause for retaliation.
The North’s statement said it would refuse any offers of talks with the South until it apologised 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 apologise 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 Defence Ministry said today it had received no such ultimatum officially, 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 subsidised treats, like shaved ice and peanuts, despite unseasonably cold weather.
The calm in Pyongyang has been a striking contrast to the steady flow of retaliatory threats North Korea has issued over ongoing military exercises between South Korea and the US.
Though the wargames, called Foal Eagle, are held regularly, North Korea was particularly angry over their inclusion this year of nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 fighters.
Today’s ultimatum comes just after US Secretary of State John Kerry ended a tour to coordinate Washington’s response with Beijing, North Korea’s most important ally, as well as with Seoul and Tokyo.
He said a missile test would be provocation that would further isolate the country and its impoverished people.
Mr Kerry said on Sunday that the US was “prepared to reach out,” but that Pyongyang must first bring down tensions and honor previous agreements.
South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee yesterday 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 UN 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 President Barack Obama on May 7 at the White House.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the US is open to dialogue with North Korea but only if Pyongyang proves itself to be trustworthy.
“The burden remains on Pyongyang. They need to take meaningful steps to show that they’ll honour their commitments,” he said.
“We need to see them be serious about denuclearisation, indicate their seriousness, and start to reduce the threats and stop provocations.”
North Korea has warned that the situation has grown so tense it cannot guarantee the safety of foreigners in the country and said embassies in Pyongyang should think about their evacuation plans.