North Korea celebrates late leader, recent missile launch

ERIC TALMADGE
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Two military guides stand near displays of flowers named after the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at a flower show to mark his birthday in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. The annual event kicks off several days of celebrations in the North and this year also featured a depiction of the country's latest missile, which it test-launched on Sunday despite international sanctions. (AP Photo/Eric Talmadge)

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea on Tuesday celebrated its latest missile launch, which foreign experts were analyzing for evidence of advancement in the country's missile capabilities.

For the next several days, North Korea will be marking the birthday of late leader Kim Jong Il, father of current leader Kim Jong Un. The major holiday this Thursday is called the "Day of the Shining Star" and will be feted with figure skating and synchronized swimming exhibitions, fireworks and mass rallies.

At the opening of a flower festival featuring a begonia named "Kimjongilia," the missile was front and center, too.

Visitors posed and took photos in front of a painting of the missile next to a portrait of the late leader and a large arrangement of Kimjongilia flowers that were provided by a military unit. A slogan by the missile touted the value of the North being a powerful nuclear state.

"I felt great pride and excitement when I saw the launch on TV," said Kang Kuk Hwa, who works at a greenhouse run by the North's trade ministry to grow Kimjongilia and flowers for another event held in April that features a kind of orchid named after Kim Il Sung, North Korea's "eternal president" and Kim Jong Un's grandfather.

"As long as there is a threat from the United States, we must build up our defenses," said Kang, who is 23.

The missile tested Sunday flew about 500 kilometers (310 miles) before splashing down into the Pacific and is believed to have featured several elements — including solid fuel and new mobile launching techniques — that could indicate significant advances in the country's missile capabilities. It has been widely criticized as a violation of a U.N. resolution.

Last year, the North also conducted two nuclear tests and is believed to be moving quickly closer to having a nuclear device that can be mounted on a long-range missile.

The North has repeatedly defended the nuclear and missile programs as necessary for national defense.

Visitors to the flower show who spoke to The Associated Press echoed that position. Like Kang, they were quick to say the United States must abandoning its "hostile policies" if it wants peace.

However, they apparently have not had time to demonize the new U.S. president, Donald Trump.

While most North Koreans would be familiar with at least the name Obama, who was frequently trashed by the state media, Trump has not yet been mentioned much. Kang said she didn't know his name, or anything about his policies.

On that, she wasn't alone.

"I don't know anything about the new president," said Kim Chung Il, a middle-aged worker. "But I know the previous presidents were hostile toward us. We must have nuclear weapons to defend ourselves and our socialist system."