The failure of the device to reach orbit was a high-profile
mishap for the young leader Kim Jong-il, who was using the launching
to bolster his standing at the 100th anniversary of his
For the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, his government's failure to put a satellite into orbit Friday is a $1 billion humiliation.
Mr. Kim had wanted to mark his ascension to supreme political power -- timed to the country's biggest holiday in decades, the centennial of the birth of his grandfather and North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung -- with fireworks, real and symbolic. The launching of the Kwangmyongsong, or Bright Shining Star, satellite was the marquee event.
Friday morning, the satellite disintegrated in a different kind of fireworks. The rocket carrying it exploded midair about one minute after liftoff, according to Japanese, South Korean and U.S. officials. The rocket and satellite, which cost the impoverished country about $450 million to build, according to South Korean government estimates, splintered into fragments and plunged harmlessly into the Yellow Sea.
Hours later, despite the embarrassing setback, Mr. Kim was upheld as the new head of the National Defense Commission, North Korea's most powerful state agency, during a parliamentary meeting in Pyongyang. That was the last of the top military, party and governmental posts that have been transferred to him from his late father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December.
For this launching and probably for future tests, North Korea had recently constructed a new launching site at Tongchang-ri near its western border with China at a cost of $400 million, according to the South Korean estimates.
The rocket reached an altitude of only 151 kilometers, or 94 miles, according to South Korean officials, far less than the 500 kilometers required to place a satellite into orbit to "present a gift," as North Korean officials liked to say, to the closest they have to a heavenly deity: Kim Il-sung.
In a socialist country steeped in the traditions of a Confucian dynasty, it is of paramount importance for the young leader, Mr. Kim, to embellish his rise to power with events that display his loyalty to his forefathers while demonstrating his own ability 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 the Johns Hopkins University 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."
And the government, more famous for shutting its country off from the outside world, had intensified the prelaunching publicity. It trumpeted the satellite program as a key achievement of Mr. Kim's, claiming that he had personally directed a previous satellite launching in 2009. It also invited foreign journalists to visit the launching site and the command and control center.
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 canceling because of the announced rocket launching.
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