North Korea stages huge rally to celebrate rocket

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) âÄî Tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied Wednesday in Pyongyang to support Kim Jong Il as he embarks on his third term as leader and to celebrate a rocket launch that was criticized elsewhere as a violation of U.N. sanctions. Kim was expected to attend a session of the North’s rubber-stamp parliament Thursday and be re-elected as chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission in his first major public appearance since a reported stroke in August. The 67-year-old Kim rules the impoverished yet nuclear-armed North in his capacity as chief of the commission, which oversees the country’s 1.2 million-member military âÄî one of the world’s largest. His re-election comes amid regional tension over the country’s controversial rocket launch Sunday. North Korea claims it sent a satellite into space, but neighboring countries say nothing reached orbit and that the launch was really a test of its long-range missile technology. The U.S., Japan and South Korea are leading a campaign in the U.N. Security Council to penalize the North. “The imperialists and reactionaries who have committed all kinds of despicable acts, tenaciously pursuing anti-(North Korea) moves to isolate and stifle us, will be driven into a yet tighter corner because of our satellite launch,” Choe Tae Bok, a top Workers’ Party official, told the rally. Footage obtained by APTN in Pyongyang showed a massive crowd of neatly dressed people packed in the main Kim Il Sung square âÄî named after Kim’s father, North Korea’s founder âÄî under a banner reading, “We enthusiastically congratulate on the successful launch” of a satellite. The North’s office Korean Central News Agency said about 100,000 Pyongyang citizens took part in the rally. Choe called the launch “a shining fruition” of Kim’s efforts to develop the North’s science and technology, “foreseeing a rosy future of the country,” according to KCNA. North Korea previously has organized mass rallies at times of high tensions with the outside world or after key events, such as the country’s first nuclear test blast in 2006. Defense Minister Kim Yong Chun separately told a government meeting later Wednesday that his army will defeat U.S. and South Korean forces with “strong, merciless return fire,” accusing them of plotting to launch a pre-emptive attack on the North, according to the North’s state TV. The North routinely issues similar claims, and the U.S. and South Korea repeatedly have said they have no intention to attack. The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War. Debate in the Security Council on whether to penalize North Korea for the launch remained stalled, with North Korea’s closest ally, China, and Russia calling for restraint. The U.S. warned that a response would take time. Asked whether three days without U.N. action means North Korea can do anything with impunity, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “It’s not a long time in relations between nations or in the affairs of the Security Council.” It took the council only five days after North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006 to pass a resolution imposing sanctions, but several resolutions putting sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program took months to negotiate. Council diplomats said U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice met with Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui on Wednesday, one of a number of bilateral discussions on the format and content of a possible council response. The diplomats insisted on speaking anonymously because the talks were private. North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Pak Tok Hun, accused the Security Council of being “undemocratic” by targeting the communist nation while allowing many other countries to launch satellites. He warned that the North would retaliate with “strong steps” if the Security Council takes action. On Wednesday, the North’s military accused Japan of mobilizing warships to find fragments of the rocket, calling it a “vicious act of espionage” and an “intolerable military provocative act” that infringes upon the country’s sovereignty, according to a statement carried by KCNA. Kim was expected to attend Thursday’s legislative session, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North. Kim took over power when his father died of heart failure in 1994. His health is of keen interest because he rules the nation of 24 million with absolute authority, allowing no opposition. He has three sons with two different wives but has not publicly named a successor. ___ Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang in Seoul and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.