PYONGYANG, North Korea - After a day of festivities to mark the 101st birthday of its first leader, North Korea on Tuesday offered new prickly 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 in downtown Seoul, where effigies of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, late leader Kim Jong Il, were burned. 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 neighbours 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 new 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, referring to North Korea's official name.
South Korea's Defence Ministry said Tuesday it had received no such ultimatum officially, noting that there is no communications line between the two Koreas.
Pyongyang launched a rocket ahead of the last anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth, which was the centennial, but the holiday this year 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 manoeuvrs, 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 co-ordinate 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 honour previous agreements.
South Korean Defence 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 co-ordinate 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 honour 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."
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 a performance the night before of the Unhasu orchestra, 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.
Starting from early Monday morning, residents dressed in their finest clothing began walking from all parts of Pyongyang to lay flowers and bow before the bronze statues of Kim and his son, late leader Kim Jong Il, as the mournful "Song of Gen. Kim Il Sung" played over and over. Similar statues of the Kims are located in every North Korean province.
Associated Press writer Sam Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.