Analysis: North Korea at crossroads after rocket fails

Kim Jong-un (far right) attends the unveiling of statues of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, 13 April
Image caption Kim Jong-un (far right) attended the unveiling of statues of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on Friday

For a regime which stage-manages everything and almost never admits to failure, what has happened could not be more disastrous for North Korea.

The rocket was meant as the piece de resistance in celebrating the centenary of Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the state. Instead, this has all backfired: publicly, miserably and spectacularly.

First indications from neighbouring countries, who were anxiously monitoring the rocket, suggest the Unha-3 launch vehicle - in essence no different from a Taepodong intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) - exploded and broke into about 20 pieces, some 90 seconds after its launch.

Adding to Pyongyang's discomfiture, this meant that the debris landed in South Korean seas west of the peninsula. Naturally Seoul at once sent teams to comb the waters.

North Korea's previous rocket launches were by no means uniformly successful, though hitherto they tended to pretend otherwise.

In 1998 and again in 2009, Pyongyang claimed to have successfully put satellites into orbit - but no one has ever been able to detect these.

In each case, the Taepodong rocket travelled long distances (up to 4,000 km; 2,485 miles), causing alarm as to potential ICBM implications. This was especially true in Japan, which they flew over.

Both times, however, the final stage failed to separate.

In between, on 5 July 2006, the North launched a Taepodong-2 as part of a volley of missile tests. No satellite was claimed this time. The rocket blew up 40 seconds after take-off.

All in all, hardly a track record suggesting it was wise to trumpet a fresh launch so confidently.

Bad timing

This abject failure is all the more embarrassing as it comes amid a flurry of key meetings in Pyongyang.

Image caption A huge crowd attended the unveiling of the statues

On 11 April the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), which nominally rules the country, held a rare conference.

This confirmed Kim Jong-un as top dog - first secretary, to be precise - while also promoting a batch of his cronies to senior positions in the Politburo and other bodies.

Hot on the party's heels comes the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), which is what passes for a parliament in Pyongyang. The 687 delegates - each "elected" with a 100% yes vote in a 99.9% turnout - meet for just one day a year, in what looks like a theatre.

The SPA is meeting as I write, on the same day as the rocket launch. Was that wise?

To its credit, this time the North admitted the launch had failed, in a terse announcement.

But the North's state news agency KCNA should quietly bury some of its earlier bombast, such as its reference to "jaw-dropping satellite launch technology", or a truly bizarre piece on 29 March.

Headlined North Korea Launches Satellite of Love, the piece claimed that the successful launch of the satellite would "proudly herald and highlight North Korea as a new Asian economic tiger and a new member of the elite club of economic powers".

The SPA, which on past form will adopt a budget with no numbers on Friday, will not formally debate the rocket fiasco. Perish the thought. But outside the formal session, in the Mansudae Assembly Hall's smoke-filled corridors, it is a safe bet that the matter will be whispered of.

What will they say, sotto voce?

Hawks or doves

Those in Pyongyang who favour reform will be fuming, yet this turn of events may work to their advantage.

As recently as 29 February, North Korea had announced an accord with the US which raised hopes of detente, only to dash them a fortnight later with the launch announcement.

Such puzzling inconsistency may reflect policy disputes in Pyongyang, with the powerful Korean People's Army (KPA) insisting on the rocket launch so as to nip peace in the bud.

Lest this sound fanciful, recall how divided the Bush administration was on North Korea, with hawks sabotaging doves at every turn - as the memoirs of those involved (Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Cheney et al) now confirm. If in Washington, why not also Pyongyang?

Two outcomes are now possible.

South Korea and the US are already warning that spy satellites have detected fresh earthworks at North Korea's nuclear test site at Punggye in the north-east, suggesting that a fresh nuclear test may be in the offing. That would be far more serious than a rocket. In both 2006 and 2009, Pyongyang's missile tests were followed by nuclear tests.

The fear is that an embarrassed and embattled Kim Jong-un, or the generals around him, might react to their rocket failure with redoubled determination to cause a big bang that will work this time - and remind the world that North Korea is not to be laughed at or trifled with.

China will exert pressure - more so than over the rocket - to head off any new nuclear test, but it may not succeed. Face has been badly lost, and pride is now at stake. This could be a dangerous moment, and things in North Korea may have to get worse before they get better.

Alternatively, Pyongyang's technocrats and doves may finally seize their chance and see off the militarists.

The sensible party in Pyongyang may gain the upper hand, and Kim Jong-un's ear, arguing that the failed rocket symbolises a failed policy, overdue for review. A stance of proud defiance yields only poverty and third-rate science. The moral: it is high time for North Korea to come in from the cold and make its peace with the world.

To assist the latter outcome, rather than rushing to kneejerk condemnation with the usual panoply of UN resolutions and sanctions of dubious efficacy, Western policy should be to take the longer view, and work subtly to help those inside North Korea who want reform.

That means more contacts and exchanges, not fewer.

But if the KPA prevails and North Korea conducts a third nuclear test, this will be a hard sell. Yet the alternative is just to drive the Kim regime further into the corner which its own actions constantly paint it into anyway.

This negative cycle needs to be broken. The initiative is unlikely to come from Pyongyang.