15 Apr 2013

Threats and diplomacy as North Korea marks Day of Sun

No mass parades and no missile launches, just muted celebrations in North Korea to mark its founder’s birth. The United States is urging the regime: stop the threats and enter talks.

It is one of the most important days in North Korea’s calendar: the Day of the Sun, marking the anniversary of the birth of their “eternal president”, Kim Il Sung. But despite the weeks of threats and belligerent behaviour, there was no repeat of last year’s provocative missile test.

Instead, the current leader Kim Jong Un visited the Kumusan mausoleum where his father lies in state along side Kim Il Sun, while a flower festival was laid on in the capital Pyongyang. Warlike rhetoric was noticably absent from state media, in stark contrast to the last few weeks.

Coincidence, perhaps, but all this could be a response to the fresh offer of dialogue from the United States, after Secretary of State John Kerry’s 10-day trip to Asia. Mr Kerry repeatedly emphasised that the US was prepared to “reach out”, when the time was right.

You have to keep your mind open. John Kerry, US Secretary of State

“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 reporters, adding: “You have to keep your mind open”.

Fundamentally, though, Mr Kerry said it was up to North Korea to begin moving towards denuclearisation, stop making threats and show it is seriously prepared to negotiate.

And that is a message that has been echoed by fellow leaders throughout Mr Kerry’s trip; even China, which is North Korea’s most important and powerful supporter. The communist party newspaper, the People’s Daily, warned today that regional tensions could escalate all too easily.

“It does not matter if it is international or accidental, even the smallest thing could cause the situation to change rapidly and perhaps get totally out of control”, it said. And earlier this year, Chinese officials told the UN chief Ban Ki Moon they would “not allow trouble making on China’s doorstep”. Stability, after all, is king.

Threats and bluster

Since February, North Korea has threatened to restart an inactive nuclear reactor, moved some medium range missiles to the east coast, and made almost daily threats of war. Foreigners were warned to leave the country, or their safety could not be guaranteed.

And, at an event in an osbcure Beijing art gallery today, North Korea’s ambassador to China attacked the United States for “exerting unprecedented military and political suppression on our country”. Ji Jae-ryong insisted his country had “firmly maintained peace and stability” in the region – and throughout the world.

John Kerry hinted he was encouraged after talks with China’s new leaders: their meetings, he said, could not have been more constructive, or forward-looking, and a joint statement from both countries called for denuclearisation across the Korean peninsula.

America’s biggest fear is that the dangerous situation could spread still further. As John Kerry put it: “What happens here also has an impact on perceptions in places like Iran, the Middle East, and elsewhere where we’re engaged in nonproliferation efforts.”

In other words, that old maxim still holds: speak softly, but don’t let that big stick out of your sight.

At the moment, though, any optimism is likely to remain pretty muted. North Korea is – quite literally – sticking to its guns. The country’s titular head of state Kim Yong-nam described its nuclear weapons capability as “a treasure” – one which he said North Korea would “never barter at any price”.

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News