PYONGYANG, North Korea -- As the world braced for a provocative missile launch by North Korea, with newscasts worldwide playing up tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the center of the storm was strangely calm.
The focus in Pyongyang yesterday was less on preparing for war and more on beautifying the capital ahead of the nation's biggest holiday: the April 15 birthday of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung. Soldiers put down their rifles to blanket the barren ground with sod and students picked up shovels to help plant trees.
But the impoverished, tightly controlled nation that has historically used major holidays to draw the world's attention by showing off its military power could well mark the occasion by testing a missile designed to strike U.S. military installations in Japan and Guam.
South Korea's foreign minister said the prospect of a medium-range missile launch is "considerably high."
North Korean officials have not announced plans to launch a missile in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions barring Pyongyang from nuclear and missile activity.
But they have told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that they will not be able to guarantee their safety starting yesterday and urged tourists in South Korea to take cover, warning that a nuclear war is imminent. Most diplomats and foreign residents in both capitals appeared to be staying put.
The threats are largely seen as rhetoric and an attempt by the North to scare foreigners into pressing their governments in Washington and Seoul to change their policies toward Pyongyang, as well as to boost the military credentials of Kim Jong Un. North Korea does not have diplomatic relations with the United States or with South Korea, its foes during the Korean War of the 1950s, and has pushed for a peace treaty to replace a 60-year-old armistice.
On the streets of Pyongyang, there was no sense of panic.
Downtown, schoolchildren marched toward statues of the two late leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, dragging brooms to sweep the hilltop plaza where they tower over Pyongyang. Women with coats thrown over traditional dresses rushed through the spring chill after leaving a rehearsal for a dance planned for Kim Il Sung's birthday celebrations.