PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Despite North Korea's warnings that the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula is so high it cannot guarantee the safety of foreign residents, it hosted athletes from around the world for an international marathon held as part of celebrations for late President Kim Il Sung's birthday Monday.
The race through the North Korean capital Sunday — and the crowds who turned out to watch — suggested that the country's concerns of an imminent military crisis might not be as dire as its official pronouncements proclaim.
The mixed message — threats of a "thermonuclear war" while showcasing foreign athletes and even encouraging tourism — has been especially striking in the lead-up to the Monday holiday for the birthday of North Korea's first leader.
Early Monday, Kim's grandson and the current dynastic leader, Kim Jong Un, visited the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang's outskirts to pay "high tribute in humblest reverence" where his grandfather's body lies embalmed, the official Korean Central News Agency said. He also visited the embalmed body of his father, the country's second leader, who died in December 2011.
Foreign governments have been struggling to assess how seriously to take North Korea's recent torrent of angry rhetoric over continuing U.S.-South Korea military maneuvers just across the border. Officials in South Korea, the United States and Japan say intelligence indicates that North Korean officials, fresh off an underground nuclear test in February, are ready to launch a medium-range missile.
But there has almost no sense of crisis in Pyongyang.
On Sunday, athletes from 16 nations competed in the 26th Mangyongdae Prize Marathon in the morning. In the afternoon, tourists filled a performance hall for a gala concert featuring ethnic Korean performers brought in from China, Russia and Japan as part of the events culminating in Kim's birthday, called the "Day of the Sun."
After racing through the capital, the foreign athletes and hundreds of North Korean runners were cheered into Kim Il Sung Stadium by tens of thousands of North Korean spectators.
"The feeling is like, I came last year already, the situation is the same," said Taiwan's Chang Chia-che, who finished 15th.
Showing off foreign athletes and performers as part of the birthday celebrations has a propaganda value that is part of Pyongyang's motivation for highlighting the events to its public, even as it rattles its sabers to the outside world. In recent weeks, Pyongyang has said it could not vouch for the safety of foreigners, indicated embassies consider evacuation plans and urged foreigners residing in South Korea to get out as well.
Pyongyang residents, meanwhile, have mobilized en masse for the events marking the birthday, rushing to tidy up streets, put new layers of paint on buildings and erect posters and banners hailing Kim.
North Korea's statements are commonly marked by alarming hyperbole and it has not ordered the small number of foreigners who are here to leave. Embassies in Pyongyang refused to comment on the suggestion they consider evacuating, referring questions back to their home countries. But there were no reports that any diplomatic missions had actually left.
North Korea has also taken the unusual move of pulling workers from the Kaesong factory complex on its side of the Demilitarized Zone, the last remaining symbols of inter-Korean rapprochement.
On Sunday, it rejected South Korea's proposal to resolve tensions through dialogue. North Korea said it has no intension of talking with Seoul unless it abandons what it called the rival South's confrontational posture.
A top leader, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, also told a gathering of high officials Sunday that the North must bolster its nuclear arsenal further and "wage a stronger all-out action with the U.S. to cope with the prevailing wartime situation," according to footage from the North's state TV.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in the region to coordinate the response with U.S. allies and China, warned North Korea not to conduct a missile test, saying it will be an act of provocation that "will raise people's temperatures" and further isolate the country and its people.
Kerry was in Tokyo on Sunday after meeting with Chinese leaders in Beijing on Saturday. In Tokyo, Kerry and Japan's foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, opened the door to direct talks with North Korea if certain conditions are met. Kerry said the U.S. was "prepared to reach out" to North Korea, but that Pyongyang must first lower tensions and honor previous agreements.
North Korea has issued no specific warnings to ships and aircraft that a missile test is imminent, and is also continuing efforts to increase tourism.
"We haven't experienced any change," said Andrea Lee, president and CEO of Uri Tours, which specializes in bringing tourists to North Korea. "They have been encouraging us to bring in more people."
Lee said about 2,000-3,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year and that the level is rising, though the recent tensions have sparked a significant number of cancellations. Air Koryo, North Korea's flag-carrier, announced it is planning to add more regular passenger flights to and from Beijing, another sign that Pyongyang — while certainly not ready to throw open its doors — wants to make it easier for tourists to put North Korea on their travel itineraries.
"I never considered canceling," said Sandra Cook, a retired economics professor from Piedmont, California, who planned her trip in November, before the tensions escalated. "I think it is a particularly interesting time to be here."
With Lee as her guide, Cook and several other Americans and Canadians toured the North Korean side of the DMZ, Kaesong and a collective farm Sunday. She said that aside from the North Korean DMZ guides' harsh portrayal of the "American imperialists'" role in the Korean War and on the peninsula today, she was surprised by the seeming calm and normalcy of what she has been allowed to see.
"The whole world is watching North Korea, and there we were yesterday peacefully strolling along the river in the sunshine. It's surreal," she said. "If you didn't know about the tensions, you would never know it. You would think everything is fine. The place feels so ordinary."