Rocket Failure May Be Test of North Korean Leader’s Power
Ng Han Guan/Associated Press
By CHOE SANG-HUN and DAVID E. SANGER
April 13, 2012
SEOUL, South Korea — For the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, the spectacular failure of a rocket meant to put a satellite into orbit was more than a $1 billion humiliation. It could be the first test of whether anyone will dare challenge his rule, and raises the question, American officials said, of whether he will be tempted to recover by staging a larger provocation.
Mr. Kim wanted to mark his formal ascension to top political power — timed to the country’s biggest holiday in decades, the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung — with fireworks, real and symbolic. Instead, the rocket carrying the satellite splintered harmlessly into the gray-blue waters of the Yellow Sea, and the North Korean government apparently concluded it had no choice but to tell its citizens the embarrassing news, which was bound to get around in a country that now has at least one million cellphones. It was the first time the country had admitted such a defeat.
For President Obama and his allies, though, the bigger question was not the fate of an aging rocket technology, but the future of a young dictator. The failure injected new unpredictability at an already uncertain time, when Kim Jong-un is trying to consolidate power, and raised new questions only weeks after Mr. Obama suggested that it was unclear who was really running North Korea.
There was considerable speculation on Friday among American and South Korean officials that Mr. Kim and his military, to re-establish some credibility, would stage a new nuclear test, for which preparations have been evident on satellite photographs for several weeks. “The North Koreans have tended to pursue patterns of provocative actions,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One.
The embarrassment means the United States probably has more time before it has to worry about the North’s ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, one that could reach the West Coast. Until now, the American assessment had been that the North could have that capability within five years. (The technology to launch a small satellite into orbit is virtually identical to the missile technology to launch a warhead, so the rocket failure Friday suggests problems with the missile program.)
But American officials said that was little solace. There is a risk, even if a remote one, that the North will repeat the kind of attacks on a border island and a South Korean Navy vessel in 2010 for which it has been blamed.
The very fact that the rocket test happened meant that the young Mr. Kim, believed to be about 28, was either willing to defy China, which warned against the test, or was overruled by others in the power structure. The first option is worrisome, because it would suggest that, as the Chinese claim, they have very little influence. The second could suggest a struggle for influence, if not actual leadership. In an opaque country that is fiercely armed and is believed to have a half-dozen or more nuclear weapons or the plutonium to produce them, the idea of power struggles makes officials nervous.
“Frankly,” one senior American intelligence official said before the launching’s failure, “I’d rather have an unstable Kim Jong-un in charge than a free-for-all where you are wondering who’s really in control of the arsenal.”
Recent machinations over a deal in which the North promised to suspend some nuclear work for American food aid, then reneged quickly on a pledge to suspend long-range missile tests, at least raised the possibility that such a power struggle could be under way. And despite American officials’ worries, there is one situation in which it could lead to more moderate behavior: if the failed missile launching emboldens those who have long believed in reaching some accord with the West and now can make the case that hard-liners fumbled the provocation, which in the end scuttled the agreement to bring in much-needed food.
The launching drew swift, if predictable and somewhat toothless, international condemnation; the United Nations Security Council has prohibited such tests by the North for years, and Pyongyang has ignored it for just as long. But whatever steps the Security Council takes are likely to be weak — there are few sanctions left that have not already been attempted, and there are fears that stronger action could simply push the North to conduct a nuclear test, as it has done when condemned in the past.
Despite the embarrassing setback, Mr. Kim was installed hours after the rocket fizzled as the new head of the National Defense Commission, his country’s highest state agency, during a parliamentary meeting. That was the last among the top military, party and state posts that have been transferred to him after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December.
For the launching, North Korea has recently completed a new site near the western border with China — at a cost of $400 million, according to South Korean estimates. The rocket itself cost another $450 million, the South Korean government believes. And the lost American food aid was estimated to be worth $200 million, driving the effective cost of the test above $1 billion in a country that cannot feed its own people.
The rocket reached only about 94 miles in altitude, far less than the 310 miles required to place a satellite into orbit and, as North Korean officials liked to say, present “a gift” to the closest the North Koreans have to a deity: Kim Il-sung.
In a socialist country steeped in the traditions of a Confucian dynasty, it is of paramount importance for the country’s new leader to embellish his rise to power with events that show his loyalty to his forefathers while demonstrating his own abilities to lead, analysts said. This launching was supposed to represent that moment: Both Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, ever fearful of an attack from the United States, had dreamed of North Korea having an effective nuclear deterrent, and that requires functioning missiles that could be fitted with weapons and reach the West.
“The main drive behind the rocket launch was domestic politics,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “They wanted to introduce the Kim Jong-un era with a big celebratory bang. They wanted to make their people believe that they were now a powerful nation.”
The government, more famous for shutting off its country from the outside world, had intensified the prelaunching publicity. It trumpeted the satellite program as a key achievement of Kim Jong-un’s, claiming that he had personally directed a previous satellite launching in 2009. It also invited dozens of foreign journalists to visit the launching site and command and control center.
South Korea did not lose the opportunity to jab at the North’s hurt pride. “It is very regrettable that North Korea is spending enormous resources on developing nuclear and missile capabilities while ignoring the urgent welfare issue of the North Korean people,” said its foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan.
Others were struck by the enormous loss of face for the country’s leadership.
“It is hard to imagine a greater humiliation,” a North Korea expert, Marcus Noland, wrote on his blog at the Web site of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“The North Koreans have managed in a single stroke to not only defy the U.N. Security Council, the United States and even their patron China, but also demonstrate ineptitude,” Mr. Noland wrote. “Some of the scientists and engineers associated with the launch are likely facing death or the gulag as scapegoats for this embarrassment.”
Launching failures are not uncommon even for rich and technologically advanced nations. “This stuff is really hard to do,” David C. Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Mass., said in an interview.
But in the myth-filled world of the Kim dynasty, there is little room for failure. The North’s two previous attempts to put a satellite into orbit failed, according to American officials, but both times the government insisted that the satellites were circling the earth, broadcasting songs about its great leaders.
Why the government changed its strategy this time, and told its people what happened, remains one of many unknowns about the North. Some analysts attributed it to the realization that the news would seep into the country anyway with so many cellphones smuggled from China, and North Korean merchants regularly crossing the Chinese border to bring home goods in short supply at home. Others speculated that it could not keep up a pretense with so many foreign reporters on hand.
One thing that is certain: the timing could not have been worse. The government announcement on television interrupted a show staged specifically to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s centenary. The show’s theme: his guiding principle of juche, or self-reliance, in defiance of the world.
- Failed North Korean Launch a Setback for Kim Jong-un – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- North Korean Rocket Said to Fail Moments After Liftoff – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- Borowitz Report – North Korea Expelled from Axis of Evil (mbcalyn.com)
- In the News – Rocket Failure May Be Test of North Korean Leader’s Power (mouonekorea.wordpress.com)
- Why The North Korean Rocket Launch Failed (blurtblog.net)
- Failed North Korean rocket launch is a ‘blow’ to Kim Jong Un’s credibility (telegraph.co.uk)
- North Korean missile launch failure: what it means for West (+video) (csmonitor.com)
- North Koreans vow loyalty after launch flop (abc.net.au)
- Failed launch is setback for NKorea’s new leader – CBS News (cbsnews.com)
- New North Korean leader emphasizes ‘military first’ (newsinfo.inquirer.net)