Sunday, December 17, 2017

North Korea's failed rocket launch was an expensive display of pride

SEOUL, South Korea — For the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, his government's failure to put a satellite into orbit Friday was a $1 billion humiliation.

Kim wanted to mark his formal ascension to top political power — timed to 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 Shining Star," satellite was the marquee event.

On Friday, the satellite disintegrated in a different kind of fireworks. The rocket carrying it exploded about two minutes after the liftoff, according to U.S., 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 gray blue waters of the Yellow Sea.

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 launch.

The launch drew swift international condemnation; the U.N. Security Council has prohibited such tests by North Korea for fear they are pretexts for testing missiles that could eventually deliver nuclear bombs. But the failure was at least as worrisome, injecting a new note of unpredictability at an already uncertain time, with Kim Jong Un still trying to consolidate power months after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

The U.N. Security Council met in emergency consultations Friday but took no action to punish the North.

The council said in a statement that it "deplored this launch" as a violation of two Security Council resolutions, which prohibit North Korea from conducting such activity.

Briefing reporters afterward, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador and rotating council president, declined to specify whether a further response would include new sanctions on North Korea, but she said "we think it's important that the council respond credibly. "

Despite the embarrassing technology setback, Kim was installed hours after the launch attempt as the new head of the national defense commission, his country's highest state agency, during a parliamentary meeting in the country's capital, Pyongyang, on Friday. That was the last among the top military, party and state posts that have been transferred to him from his father, who died in December.

For the launch and probably other future tests, North Korea has recently completed a 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 94 miles in altitude, far less than 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 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. Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, ever fearful of an attack from the United States, had dreamed of North Korea having a functioning nuclear deterrent; U.S. intelligence officials already believe the country has the fuel for several bombs, but they do not yet believe North Korea has figured out how to deliver those warheads on missiles that could threaten the West.

The government, more famous for shutting off its country from the outside world, had invited foreign journalists to visit the launch site and command and control center.

In downtown Pyongyang, university student Kim Kwang Jin was optimistic despite Friday's failure.

"Other nations — including China and Russia — have had failures while building their space programs so why wouldn't we?'' he said. "I hope that in the future, we're able to build a better satellite."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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