SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Friday celebrated the milestone birth anniversary of its late founder with a mass dance, fireworks and calls for stronger loyalty to his grandson and current leader Kim Jong Un, but there was no word on an expected military parade amid heightened tensions over its nuclear program.
The 110th birthday of Kim Il Sung comes after North Korea conducted a spate of weapons tests in recent months, including its first full-range intercontinental ballistic missile launch since 2017. Experts say North Korea aims to expand its arsenal and ramp up pressure on the United States while nuclear diplomacy is stalled.
“Let’s work harder in devotion to our respected comrade Kim Jong Un and on that path ultimately realize the dreams of our great president (Kim Il Sung) to build a powerful socialist state,” the North’s state-run website Uriminzokkiri said in a commentary.
Kim Il Sung’s birthday is the most important national holiday in North Korea, where the Kim family has ruled under a strong personality cult since the nation’s founding in 1948. Kim Jong Un became a third-generation leader after his father Kim Jong Il died in late 2011.
Kim Jong Un has pushed to advance his nuclear weapons while simultaneously reviving the economy. But a mix of pandemic border closures, U.S.-led sanctions and his own mismanagement have caused a massive economic blow in what’s become the toughest moment of his decade in power.
On Friday, residents of Pyongyang, the capital, bowed and laid bouquets of flowers near the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
State TV later showed thousands of young people — men dressed in Western-style white shirts and women in colorful traditional Korean garb — dancing in a Pyongyang plaza as fireworks launched from a nearby river bank lit up the night sky. The dancers circled a group of performers who held up yellow flowers to form the symbol of the Workers’ Party of Korea -– a hammer, brush and sickle.
North Korea often marks key state anniversaries with huge military parades featuring newly built missiles, especially during anniversaries that end in zero and five. Commercial satellites earlier indicated an apparent rehearsal for a military parade, such as people assembled in formation at the Pyongyang plaza, where such events were held in the past.
After North Korea’s ICBM test last month, South Korean and U.S. officials said Pyongyang could soon launch fresh provocations like an additional ICBM test, a rocket to put a spy satellite into orbit, or even a nuclear bomb test that would be the seventh of its kind.
South Korea’s military said recently it detected signs that North Korea is rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground that it partially dismantled before it entered now-dormant nuclear talks with the United States in 2018.
“I think they’ll carry out a nuclear test once it finishes restoring its nuclear testing facility,” said analyst Moon Seong Mook with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “There is no reason for them to bring back its testing ground if they don’t plan to use them for a bomb test.”
Sung Kim, the top U.S. official on North Korea, is to visit South Korea next week for talks on the international community’s response to the North’s recent missile tests.
North Korea has recently resumed its trademark harsh rhetoric against its rivals. One of its international affairs commentators labeled President Joe Biden as “an old man in senility,” while Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, called South Korea’s defense minister “a scum-like guy” and threatened to annihilate South Korea with nuclear strikes.