N. Korea Celebrates Founder’s Birth Amid Heightened Tensions

North Korea marks the 101st birth anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung today, after the U.S. reached an agreement with China, Japan and South Korea to try to coax the reclusive regime back to talks.

“We’re prepared to reach out,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday in Tokyo near the conclusion of an Asian tour that left the door open for a U.S. meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Any meeting would have to be at the “appropriate moment, appropriate circumstance,” he said.

Kim early today paid his respects at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which houses the tomb of both his grandfather Kim Il Sung and his father Kim Jong Il, the official Korean Central News Agency reported. Diplomats are now focused on whether Kim will mark the April 15 anniversary by testing another missile or nuclear device.

North Korea has repeatedly said the region is on the brink of war since its February nuclear test -- the third at its Punggye-ri underground site -- prompted stronger United Nations sanctions and the U.S. and South Korea began their joint annual military exercises last month.

The South has warned previously that North Korea may carry out a provocation, citing a possible window that runs until today. South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said while the North is ready to fire a missile at any time, it’s not preparing to wage a full-scale war. Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said earlier there had been no unusual North Korea troop movements.

Shuttered Gaeseong

Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress last week that the North moved at least one medium-range Musudan missile to its eastern coast. The Musudan has a range of 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) to 3,500 miles -- which is a potential threat to Guam though not to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland, Locklear said.

Operations at the joint Gaeseong industrial complex remained suspended for the seventh day today after the North withdrew its 53,397 workers and denied South Korean access to the complex north of the demilitarized zone.

South Korea’s invitation on April 11 to discuss normalization of operations at Gaeseong is “meaningless” while the U.S. and South Korea’s joint Foal Eagle military exercises continue, the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea said yesterday in a statement carried by KCNA. Those drills conclude at the end of April.

‘First Step’

South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s office called the rejection “disappointing” while the Unification Ministry maintained that it needs “more time” to gauge the North’s final response.

“North Korea won’t take South Korea’s offer to talk, or the U.S. and China’s efforts for a peaceful solution lightly,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “As a first step, I expect talks between North and South to resume on normalizing Gaeseong industrial complex, once the ‘Day of the Sun’ celebrations are over,” he said, referring to today’s holiday in North Korea.

“The North has already shown everything they can,” Yang said, discounting the possibility of an attack.

New statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, known in North Korea as the “Generalissimos,” were erected at the Ministry of People’s Security in Pyongyang, while mosaics portraying “boundless reverence” for the two were unveiled at various locations in Pyongyang, KCNA reported. Performances and art festivals were also held featuring pieces such as “Cantata to Marshal Kim Il Sung.”

Pyongyang Marathon

Runners from 16 countries competed in a marathon yesterday in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang that was won by Ethiopia’s Negassa Ketema Bekele, KCNA said.

Kim Jong Un, the third son of Kim Jong Il, resembles his grandfather and wears the same dark Mao suits favored by the state founder. His rapid succession to power last year was finalized when he took the top military rank of marshal in July.

Kerry devoted his first visit to Asia as the top U.S. diplomat to calming tensions on the Korean peninsula, an effort that has gained some momentum after China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, agreed to join the U.S. in outlining a road map toward a resolution.

There are signs that China is modestly scaling back economic ties with the North. Chinese exports to North Korea fell 13.8 percent to $720 million in the first three months of 2013, the China customs bureau reported. From December through February, exports of crude oil to North Korea rose 3 percent to 102,002 tons, or $107.7 million, according to Chinese data.

“China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean peninsula,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said on Saturday while accompanied by Kerry at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, site of former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit. “The issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue.”