Friday, July 1st, 2022 17:22:02

North Korea’s Rocket Fiasco

Updated: May 5, 2012 10:14 am

North Korea defied warnings from the international community and launched a rocket on April 13, 2012. The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite was fired from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri at 7.38 am but failed to reach orbit. The failure to launch the rocket comes as an embarrassment for the communist regime, which was seeking to reinforce the legitimacy of the new leader, 28-year-old Kim Jong-un, who took over from his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011. North Korea insisted that the aim of the launch was to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the nation Kim Il-sung, by launching a civilian satellite. But it is suspected that the launch was to test banned long-range missile technology.

Though the rocket suffered a catastrophic structural failure about a minute after launch and plummeted into the Yellow Sea and scattering debris, it threatened to cause a further deterioration in the relationship between the reclusive state and its neighbour. The failure demonstrated that North Korea has not mastered the technology that they need to control multi-stage rockets a key capability if the North is to threaten the US with intercontinental ballistic missiles. Launching failures are not uncommon even for rich and technologically advanced nations. But in the myth-filed world of the Kim dynasty, there is little room for failure. But the government changed the strategy to conceal and decided to announce the failure mainly because so many foreign reporters were present and cellphone/internet penetration could not be controlled.

According to Naoki Tanaka, Japan’s Defense Minister, the three-stage rocket “was airborne for more than a minute before it broke apart”. Debris started falling from an altitude of about 151 km above Baekneyong Island (in northwest South Korea) and was scattered across the sea roughly 100 to 150 km off Pyeongtak and Gunsan. Pyongyang’s state media acknowledged the satellite failed to enter orbit. The North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado identified the projectile as a Taepodong-2 missile, which it said was under US monitoring during its short flight southward above the Yellow Sea.

Pyongyang ignored repeated calls from various nations to cancel. It claimed that it was an attempt to place a weather observation satellite into orbit. The US, Japan and South Korea, as well as the global community considered North’s “satellite” launch as a façade for another illegal long-range missile test. The breakup of the Unha 3 rocket is seen as more than $1 billion humiliation for the new Kim Jong-un government, which had previously touted the launch as proof of North Korea’s technological advancement and had timed it with other national celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim’s grandfather, regime’s founder Kim Il-sung.

The New York Times observed that it could be the first test of whether anyone will dare challenge his rule, and raises the question of whether he will be tempted to recover by staging a larger provocation. The young leader wanted to mark his formal ascension to top political power with fireworks, real and symbolic. After the spectacular failure, the regime had no choice but to inform its citizens the embarrassing news, the first time the country admitting such a defeat, as the peoples are armed with more than a million cellphones that are smuggled into North Korea from China.

Though the rocket ultimately did not pose a threat to any part of either Japan’s or South Korea’s territories, both countries’ state-of-the-art-missile defense systems kept on alert were not called upon to intercept any debris. Japan did not take any chance and had put its radar systems to closely monitor the situation. In view of the failure, neither ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles deployed around Okinawa Prefecture nor Standard Missile-3 interceptors aboard Maritime Self-Defense Forces destroyers in the East China Sea were activated.

According to South Korean government estimates, the North built the new site near the western border with China at a cost of $400 million. The rocket itself cost another $450 million. If the lost US food aid estimated to be worth $200 million is added, the effective cost of the test was above $1 billion. This is too much money for a country that cannot feed its own people and begs food from other countries. South Korea’s foreign minister lost no time in jabbing at the North’s hurt pride by saying that the North is spending enormous resources on developing nuclear and missile capabilities while ignoring the urgent welfare issue of its people.


The launching drew swift international condemnation. Past condemnation over similar tests has proved toothless and this time is not going to be any different. There are few sanctions left that have not been already attempted and any stronger action will only push the North to conduct a nuclear test. The fact that hour after the fiasco, Kim Jong-un was installed as the new head of the National Defense Commission, the country’s highest state agency, and the last among the top military, party and state posts that have been transferred to him after his father’s death indicates that he wants to consolidate power without losing much time.

The UN Security Council “deplored” the failed bid to launch a long-range rocket. The Group of Eight foreign ministers issued an emergency statement after their annual summit in Washington, condemning the North’s act and urged it to refrain from further provocations. In a statement issued by the G-8, it attacked the launch as “a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions”. The foreign ministers of the G-8—made up of the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, the U.K., Germany, France and Italy—raised the possibility of action by the United Nations. “We, the G-8 Foreign Ministers, condemn the launch by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which is a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1695, 1718, and 1874,” the statement said.

Japan was slow to issue a response and the Japanese people were not happy about it. In contrast, the US and South Korea issued official announcements swiftly after blastoff. It was a typical Japanese bungling as there is too much obsession to confirm data from the US warning system and further verification. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura probably learnt some lesson from Japan’s reactions to North Korea’s previous rocket launch in 2009 that stemmed from bureaucratic misfires, thereby sending false alarms that prompted widespread panic. Therefore, the government decided to adopt a double-checking policy this time. Even the defense ministry justified delayed response on the ground that “necessary issues needed to be taken care of”. Though Fujimura termed North Korea’s act as “a grave act of provocation” and lodged a complaint through diplomatic routes, it did not want to impose additional sanctions unilaterally without discussing with the international community.

Japan has urged China and Russia, allies of North Korea, to support whatever effort is made at the UN Security Council. Not only the possibility of the resumption of the Six-Party Talks on denuclearization of North Korea appear bleak, the chances of Japan holding direct talks with the hermit state over the abduction issue are now even slimmer. China, North Korea’s closest ally, called for calm in the Korean peninsula. Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said that the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in northeastern Asia is a common responsibility of, and in the best interests of, all sides. China also said that Japan was using the launch as the pretext to reinvent its armed forces as more proactive rather than defensive one. The US and its allies will “take additional steps” if there are more “provocative actions.”

Though South Korea and Japan favour a strong punishment of the North, there is also a palpable worry that the mercurial and isolated state could respond to new UN punishments with a third atomic blast. The council’s response is therefore tempered. The UN Secretary General characterized North Korea’s rocket firing as “deplorable”. Obama administration also condemned the attempt as illegal and dangerous troublemaking that would leave North Korea even more cut off from the world. A statement released by the White House observed: “Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments.”


The failed missile launch could trigger a major internal dispute and political instability in North Korea. According to analysts, the North Korean leader could even escalate diplomatic tactics by conducting a nuclear test to make up for the humiliation. Japan’s options seem limited. According to Professor Shunji Hiraiwa on North Korean issues at Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo Prefecture, North Korea is not interested in Japan and this limits Japan’s role. Therefore, trilateral negotiations among the US, China and North Korea could be the key in preventing Pyongyang from trying to test a nuclear bomb.

The last time North Korea launched a missile, in April 2009, it conducted a nuclear test one month later. Pyongyang may follow the same pattern this time. In February 2012, there were some signs of hope when North Korea agreed to suspend uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon complex and a moratorium on further nuclear and long-range missile tests in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the US. The deal for a brief period raised hopes that a moribund multinational process aimed at North Korea’s permanent denuclearization could be reinvigorated. That optimism was punctured when Pyongyang in mid-March declared its intention to fire a rocket into space in apparent contravention of the terms of the agreement with Washington.

Thus, Pyongyang broke the trust. And, as the US has decided not to send food aid following the missile launch, Pyongyang would see this as a break in promise. The fact that the North promised to suspend some nuclear work for food and then quickly reneged the pledge to suspend long-range missile tests, suggests that a power struggle could be under way.

Pyongyang will have no choice but to strengthen its defensive capabilities by conducting a nuclear experiment. It is extremely likely that Pyongyang either launches another missile or conducts a nuclear test after a severe power struggle takes place among the various factions. This is because the regime is made up of various groups ranging from moderates to militaristic hardliners. It is likely that a large-scale purge take place with people being blamed for disgracing the leader Kim Jong-un. One could recall that when North Korea failed at currency denomination, many people were purged and this time it could be much severe. In the myth-filled world of the Kim dynasty, how the young leader reacts to the big humiliation is anybody’s guess and how the regime’s guiding principle of juche, or self-reliance, in defiance of the world is taken to its logical conclusion would remain one of many unknowns. Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert, observes: “Some of the scientists and engineers associated with the launch are likely facing death or the gulag as scapegoats for this embarrassment”.

Though there was immediate condemnation from various countries, the bigger question was not the fate of aging rocket technology, but the future of a young dictator. At a time when the young leader was trying to consolidate power, the failure of the rocket launch injected new uncertainty at an already uncertain time. To re-establish his credibility, staging a new nuclear test is a possibility, for which preparations have been evident on satellite photographs for several weeks.

The US could take solace from the launch failure that North’s ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the West Coast will take longer than expected. The technology to launch a small satellite into orbit is virtually identical to the missile technology to launch a warhead, so the rocket failure suggests problems with the missile program.

The decision to rocket test signals one of two things: defy China which warned against the test or he was overruled in the internal power structure. The first is more worrisome than the second, as China’s influence would have considerably waned and therefore its sobering counsel would have been rendered irrelevant. The second could suggest a struggle for influence, if not actual leadership. It is believed that Kim Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyong-hui is the one wielding the real power in the Stalinist country. Kim Kyong-hui is the daughter of the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung, which gives legitimacy to her status, and her experience in government is apparently making up for Kim Jong-un’s lack of it.

The young leader still does not seem to be making decisions by himself on important matters and consults his aunt Kim Kyong-hui or his uncle Jang Song-taek. Kim Jong-un was tapped to succeed his father in January 2009 and made his first official appearance in September 2010. Kim Jong-il died less than three years after Kim Jong-un began training for the top job and ended up succeeding him without gaining full control of the military and government. North Korea watchers say this leaves Kim junior no choice but to lean on his aunt and uncle for advice. 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 struggle makes an uneasy scenario. Under the circumstance, an unstable Kim Jong-un would be preferable to a free-for-all situation in which no one knows who controls the arsenal.

Domestic politics drove Kim Jong-un’s decision to launch the rocket. The government trumpeted the satellite program as a key achievement of the young leader. A government famous for shutting off its country from the outside world even invited dozens of foreign journalists to visit the launching site and command and control center to demonstrate to the world that it is now a powerful nation.

North Korea is a socialist country steeped in the traditions of a Confucian dynasty and it is paramount for the country’s new leader to embellish his rise to power with events meant to show loyalty to his forefathers, while demonstrating his own abilities to lead. This launching was supposed to represent that moment. Both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il choose to have a nuclear deterrent capability with functioning missiles fitted with weapons as they were fearful of an attack from the US. The junior Kim was just following his forefather’s chosen path and thereby demonstrates his obeisance to them. After the rocket fiasco, his future course of action remains in the realm of the unknown for some time and this is the hugely dangerous scenario.

By Rajaram Panda

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