PYONGYANG, North Korea – After a day of festivities to mark the 101st birthday of its first leader, North Korea on Tuesday offered prickly new rhetoric against the United States 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 by about 250 people in downtown Seoul, where effigies of Kim Il Sung and his late son and successor, Kim Jong Il, were burned. One protester carried a placard saying "Kim Jong Un Out," referring to the third generation of Kim family ruler. Such protests are not unusual in South Korea and this one likely gave the North a pretext to react negatively to calls for joining in dialogue with its neighbors than an actual cause for retaliation.
The North's statement said it would refuse any offers of talks with the South until it apologized 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 leader, Kim Jong Un.
"If the puppet authorities truly want dialogue and negotiations, they should apologize 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. North Korea's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK.
Later, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said South Korea was closely monitoring North Korea's moves and was ready for any attack.
The North's threat is "regrettable," Kim told reporters. "We will thoroughly and resolutely punish North Korea if it launches any provocation for whatever reason."
Pyongyang launched a rocket ahead of the last anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth — the centennial — but this year's holiday has been much more low-key, with Pyongyang residents gathering in performance halls and plazas and taking advantage of subsidized 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 United States. Though the maneuvers, 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.
"The ultimatum is just North Korea's way of saying that it's not willing or ready to talk with the South," said Chang Yong-seok at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. "North Korea apparently wants to keep the cross-border relations tense for some time to come."
The Tuesday ultimatum comes just after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a tour to coordinate Washington's response with Beijing, North Korea's most important ally, as well as with Seoul and Tokyo. Kerry said a missile test would be provocation that would further isolate the country and its impoverished people. He said Sunday that the U.S. was "prepared to reach out," but that Pyongyang must first bring down tensions and honor previous agreements.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee Monday 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 U.N. 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 with President Barack Obama on May 7 at the White House.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday the United States 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 honor their commitments," Ventrell told reporters in Washington. "We need to see them be serious about denuclearization, indicate their seriousness, and start to reduce the threats and stop provocations."
U.S.-South Korean military drills are scheduled to end April 30. On Tuesday, a Marine CH-53E helicopter made a "hard landing" during the exercises, according to a statement from United States Forces Korea. Twenty-one personnel were on board the helicopter, including five crew members, the statement said. All were taken to the hospital, but 15 were quickly released. The remaining six were in stable condition.
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. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday that although there is reason for concern over the "frenetic and bellicose" rhetoric, Britain believes there has been "no immediate increased risk or danger" to those living in or travelling to North Korea.
Pyongyang's media gave little indication of how high the tensions are.
The front page of the Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party newspaper, on Tuesday featured photos of Kim Jong Un at an orchestral performance the night before, along with his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, and other top officials. North Korean media also reported that he watched volleyball and basketball games between Kim Il Sung University of Politics and Kim Il Sung Military University.