People visit giant statues of the late North Korean leaders, Kim Il Sung,… (Associated Press )
BEIJING -- North Korea celebrated the 101th anniversary of its founder's birth Monday with flowers and dancing instead of missiles, raising hopes that the regime may be climbing down from the furious rhetoric of recent weeks.
Even the fire-breathing North Korean news service was unusually subdued, the day passing with nary a threat of thermonuclear war.
Kim Jong Un, the 30-year-old leader, was reported to have paid a midnight visit to the mausoleum in Pyongyang where his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder, and father, Kim Jong Il, lie in state, embalmed in the Communist tradition.
At the feet of statues of the two, floral baskets were placed reading, “The great comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will always be with us,’’ according to the news service.
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In celebration of the holiday, which was dubbed “Day of the Sun,” North Korea held a concert and marathon over the weekend, but an anticipated military parade did not occur. That has led to speculation that Pyongyang may have been chastened by criticism emanating from China, its ally and patron.
South Korea’s Yonhap news service reported that this year China did not send a gift or congratulatory message as it normally does on Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
"China is quite upset with the North Koreans,’’ said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute in Seoul. “It is urgent that the North restore the relationship with China for the sake of the economy as well as gaining the people’s support.’’
But South Korean Defense Ministry officials warned that a missile launch -- initially expected to take place during the birthday celebrations -- was still possible.
"We don't think the situation is getting better, and we are in a military readiness posture," Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said at a parliamentary hearing Monday.
Another defense official, spokesman Kim Min-seok added, "If the North had injected fuel [into the missiles,] it can fire off the missiles any time, if it makes that political decision.”
April 15 is a major public holiday for North Koreans, one of the few days a year that people get to eat meat. Children are typically given gifts such as candy for the leaders’ birthdays, rather than for their own.
North Korea uses its own calendar, which begins in 1912, the year of the elder Kim’s birth.
Following a long-range missile launch in December and a nuclear test in February, the United Nations imposed fresh sanctions on North Korea. In response, the North unleashed a barrage of threats to attack the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons, setting off an international furor.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who was in Beijing over the weekend, suggested that senior Chinese officials had pressured Pyongyang into pulling back from those provocations. He said the U.S. was willing to reopen negotiations if the North Koreans show they are serious about denuclearization.
Cheong, of the Sejong Institute, said it is possible that North Korea will return to talks after ongoing annual U.S.-South Korean military drills are completed.
"Since early this year, Kim Jong Un has pressed on with a very hard-line policy," Cheong said. "But he won’t be able to continue like that forever."