North Korea's failed rocket launch Friday raised concerns about the stability of a government led by Kim Jong Un, thought to be in his late 20s, who was thrust into the position after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December.
BEIJING — After the embarrassment of a much-publicized rocket launch ending in explosion, North Korea offered a new puzzle Friday for international observers: What will the isolated country do next?
The Unha-3 (Galaxy) rocket and the satellite it carried were meant to be a grand reminder of the 100th anniversary of the April 15 birth of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder. It was also a public assertion of the standing of his grandson and North Korea’s current ruler, Kim Jong Un.
That the launch ended so disastrously — the rocket burst into pieces less than two minutes after takeoff at 7:39 a.m., according to the South Korean Defense Ministry — raises the question of whether North Korea will up the stakes.
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Beyond the usual erratic behavior and secrecy of the North, there are concerns about the stability of a government led by Kim Jong Un, thought to be in his late 20s, who was thrust into the position after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December.
The government had invited a contingent of Western journalists to report the achievement, making it that much more of a humiliation to have to acknowledge, via an official news service, that “the earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said U.S. analysts believe the rocket failed after its second stage had ignited. He said the U.S. played no role in the explosion, noting that previous North Korean missile launches also had fallen short of their announced goals.
Despite the embarrassing technology setback, Kim Jong Un was installed hours after the failed launch 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. That was the last among the top military, party and state posts that have been transferred to him from his late father.
North Korea claimed the rocket was a peaceful endeavor meant only to launch a satellite. But it was widely seen as a test of intercontinental-ballistic-missile development, which would violate a United Nations ban on the North’s use of such technology.
U.S. officials had warned against the launch, and Little said the explosion didn’t change that view. “Even though it failed, (the launch) was a violation of international law,” he said.
Little urged North Korea not to follow up with another “highly provocative act.”
That suggested worry about North Korea’s other contentious program, nuclear weapons.
A South Korean intelligence report, widely quoted this week, said the North appeared to be readying for its third nuclear test. Satellite images of an area where tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009 showed a new tunnel being dug, according to The Associated Press.
Not everyone is convinced the North will push ahead soon with a nuclear test or further provocations.
The launch itself might have been sufficient to demonstrate the “strong willingness” of Kim Jong Un, said Su Hao, a scholar at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, which is affiliated with China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Asked what he meant by “willingness,” Su replied: “To do whatever he wants to do, including violating the wishes of the international community.”
The North Koreans had in February agreed to halt long-range missile and nuclear tests. The United States in turn said it would provide the North with 240,000 tons of food aid worth $200 million. Instead, U.S. officials canceled the aid after the launch.
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. The North’s two previous attempts to put a satellite into orbit failed, according to U.S. officials, but both times the government insisted the satellites were circling the Earth and broadcasting songs about its great leaders.
This time, it had to admit to failure. On Friday, the North’s Central TV interrupted its regular programs to report the news. While this indicated the government was not withholding the embarrassment from its people, foreign reporters in Pyongyang said four hours of eerie silence passed before the government admitted to the failure.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.