News Column

Dud Rocket a Setback for a Celebrating North Korea

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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 grandfather's birth.

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.

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 the South's foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan.

"It's is hard to imagine a greater humiliation," the North Korea expert Marcus Noland said in 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 said. "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. But in the mythology-filled world of the Kim family, there is little room for failure. The North's two previous attempts to put a satellite into orbit both failed, according to U.S. 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 neighboring countries were watching the much-anticipated launching more closely than ever. On Friday, Central TV in the North interrupted its regular programs to report the news. While that indicated that the government was not withholding the political embarrassment from its people, foreign reporters in Pyongyang said four long hours of eerie silence had passed before the government admitted to its abortive effort.

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 high-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 the failed launching on Friday raises is: Where will the new leadership turn now for a much needed legitimation of Mr. 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 United States pushes for more sanctions," said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at Sejong Institute in Seongnam, South Korea.

By going ahead with its launching, North Korea defied international warnings of censure and further isolation. The United States and its allies had called the launching a provocative pretext for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that might one day carry a nuclear warhead.

Officials from Japan, South Korea and the United States, which had been monitoring for signs of the launching, condemned it as a belligerent act that endangered regional stability -- even though it failed. American officials said food aid that they had planned to send to North Korea to help feed its malnourished population would be suspended.

"North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry," the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said in a statement Thursday evening, which was Friday morning in Asia. The United States, Mr. Carney said, "remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and is fully committed to the security of our allies in the region."

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.

The launching has been politically problematic for the Obama administration, which only weeks ago completed an agreement with the North to provide food aid in return for Pyongyang's agreement to suspend uranium enrichment and refrain from test launchings of long- range missiles. The administration had portrayed the deal as a promising if fragile advance that would allow nuclear monitors back into the country after years when the nuclear program continued unchecked.

The administration says it specifically told the North Korean negotiators that the deal was off if satellites were launched, as it considers such launchings a pretext for missile tests. But that requirement was not put in writing. Critics questioned the administration's decision to go ahead without a written commitment, given the North Koreans' history of breaking international agreements. But the administration insisted that it had not fallen into the same trap as past administrations -- which made concessions only to have North Korea renege on deals -- because the United States had not yet delivered the food aid.

A senior White House official said the failure of the rocket launching would probably hurt North Korea's effort to sell weapons - - easing somewhat the fears of Pyongyang as a nuclear proliferator. It also proved the effectiveness of the heavy sanctions in place on North Korea, the official said, since the measures have deprived the country of access to metals and other technical components for a viable ballistic-missile program.

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