Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on Friday. (AP)
Seoul, April 13: For the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, who completed the last step in his hurried ascension to power in Pyongyang today, his government’s failure to put a satellite into orbit is a $1-billion humiliation.
Kim wanted to mark his ascension to top political power — timed with the country’s biggest holiday in decades, the 100th birthday of his grandfather and North Korean founder, Kim Il-sung — with fireworks, real and symbolic. And the launching of its Kwangmyongsong, or “Bright Shinning Star”, satellite was the marquee event.
Today, the satellite disintegrated in a different kind of fireworks. The rocket carrying it exploded mid-air about one minute after the liftoff, according to American, South Korean and Japanese officials. The rocket and satellite — which cost the impoverished country an estimated $450 million to build, according to South Korean government estimates — splintered into many pieces and plunged into the grey blue waters of the Yellow Sea.
Launch failures are not uncommon even for rich and technologically advanced nations. But in the myth-filled world of the Kim family, there is little room for failure.
Hours later, despite the embarrassing setback, Kim was upheld as the new head of the national defence commission, his country’s highest state agency, during a parliamentary meeting in Pyongyang today. That was the last among the top military, party and state posts that have been transferred to him from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December.
For the launching and probably other future tests, North Korea has recently completed a brand new launch site near the western border with China — at a cost of $400 million according the South Korean estimates.
The rocket reached only about 151km in altitude, far less than 499km required to place a satellite into orbit and, as North Korean officials liked to say, present “a gift” to the closest the North Koreans had to a heavenly God: Kim Il-sung.
In a socialist country steeped in the traditions of a Confucian dynasty, it is of paramount import for the young leader, Kim, to embellish his rise to power with events that showed his loyalty to his forefathers while demonstrating his own abilities to lead, analysts said.
“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 Jung-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 its country off from the outside world, had intensified the pre-launch publicity. It trumpeted the satellite programme as a key achievement of Kim, claiming that he had personally directed a previous satellite launching in 2009. It also invited foreign journalists to visit the launch site and command and control centre.
The result was more than a loss of face. North Korea lost 240,000 tons of food aid, estimated to be worth $200 million, that Washington had promised in February but then said it was cancelling because of the announced rocket launch.
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 such as chronic food shortages,” said its foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan.
“It’s is hard to imagine a greater humiliation,” North Korea expert Marcus Noland said in his blog at the website 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 UN Security Council, the United States, and even their patron China, but also demonstrate ineptitude,” Noland said. “Some of the scientists and engineers associated with the launch are likely facing death or the gulag as scapegoats for this embarrassment.”
The North’s two previous attempts to put a satellite into orbit both failed, according to US officials, but both times the government insisted that the satellites were circling the earth and broadcasting songs about its great leaders.
This time, it had to admit to failure, analysts said, because of the presence of so many foreign reporters and because neighbouring countries were watching the much-anticipated launch more closely than ever. Today, the North’s Central TV interrupted its regular programmes to report the news. While this indicated that the government was not withholding the political embarrassment from its people, foreign reporters in Pyongyang said four long hours of eerie silence passed before the government admitted to its abortive launch.
Still, analysts warned, it was not a time for the North’s critics to gloat.
The North’s admission “suggests that, although a major setback to North Korea’s plan to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s centenary with a demonstration of hi-tech prowess, it is not such an embarrassment that they would try to deny it”, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. “There will be more propaganda opportunities over the weekend that perhaps can make up for the satellite’s fizzle.”
One question that today’s failed launch raises is: Where will the new leadership turn now for a much needed legitimisation of Kim’s dynastic succession?
“Now it has become more certain that North Korea will raise tensions and go ahead with its third nuclear test to recover some of its lost face, especially if the US pushes for more sanctions,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at Sejong Institute.
One Obama administration official suggested that the failure might speed the North’s determination to conduct a nuclear test — the country’s third — “simply to show that it can”. Test preparations are under way, satellite photographs suggest. A remaining unknown is whether a test would be designed to show off a new weapon made from highly enriched uranium, the newest fuel the North is experimenting with, rather than the plutonium bombs that it tested, with mixed success, in 2006 and 2009.
A senior White House official said the failure of the rocket launching probably would hurt North Korea’s effort to sell weapons — somewhat easing the fears of Pyongyang as a nuclear proliferator. It also proved the effectiveness of the heavy sanctions in place on North Korea, this official said, since the measures have deprived the country of access to metals and other technical components for a viable ballistic-missile programme.