SEOUL, South Korea – Tens of thousands of North Koreans, including high level officials, on Thursday gathered in the impoverished country's capital to defend their government's right to nuclear weapons, state-run media reported.
"We have nothing to be scared about as we have a strong war deterrent," a North Korean woman said at the massive rally in central Pyongyang, the North's Central TV reported, according to APTN footage seen in Seoul.
The communist regime — which conducted its first-ever nuclear test in October — often refers to its nuclear weapons program as a necessary deterrent against the threat of a U.S. attack, an accusation Washington has repeatedly denied.
The rally, which drew about 100,000 North Koreans including Parliament speaker Choe Thae Bok and the vice president of Parliament, Yang Hyong Sop, was held to express public support for Pyongyang's New Year message, Central TV said.
In a New Year message on Monday, the North vowed to strengthen its defense capabilities as it celebrated its nuclear power, and called for efforts to revitalize its sickly economy.
The North hailed its Oct. 9 nuclear test as "an auspicious event in the national history." The test stoked international tensions and drew U.N. sanctions.
The New Year message also urged the North's 1.1 million-strong military, the backbone of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's rule, to defend the North's leadership at all costs.
The rally participants pledged to defend Kim with their lives as they held aloft large pictures of the leader and his late father, the country's founding president, Kim Il-Sung, in Kim Il Sung Square, according to the TV footage.
The North usually holds a massive rally every year in support of a New Year message, but it doesn't have "any special meaning," a South Korean official said, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.
The participants also vowed to embark on a campaign to build a prosperous and powerful nation while making a dramatic effort to improve people's standard of living.
North Korea is one of the world's poorest countries. It has relied on foreign handouts to feed its 23 million people since the mid-1990s, when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy and led to a famine estimated to have killed some 2 million people.