SEOUL – North Korea’s rocket launch is a timely boost for its young leader, securing his year-old grip on power and laying to rest the humiliation of a much-hyped but failed attempt eight months ago, analysts say.
While Wednesday’s launch is likely to deepen the international isolation of a country already in dire economic straits, its real and symbolic value can only strengthen Kim Jong Un’s hand.
The timing was especially significant, both domestically and overseas, where the launch poses a particular challenge for concerned neighbors China, Japan and South Korea, which are all in a period of political transition.
At home, it lent crucial validity to Kim’s place in the country’s dynastic succession, coming days before the first anniversary of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and in the centennial birth year of his grandfather and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
“The launch means the fulfilment of Kim Jong Il’s last wish,” said Yoo Ho Yeol, a political science professor at Korea University in Seoul. “As such, it helps cement Kim’s grip on power and strengthens his authority over the North’s military elites, securing their loyalty and a sense of solidarity under his leadership.”
By pushing ahead with the launch, Kim, who is not yet 30, has proved he is willing to follow his father’s example in flouting U.N. resolutions and ignoring the advice and concerns of his only major ally: China.
“If anything, they carried out this test knowing what they were going to get in terms of criticism and condemnation, and potentially an increase of sanctions,” said James Schoff, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“But they’re betting that it won’t be that bad and it will be a success on the domestic front. And it’s a sort of vindication for the April failure.”
That launch, for which Pyongyang had taken the unprecedented step of inviting the foreign media, was seen as a personal humiliation for Kim after the carrier exploded shortly after takeoff.
The opaque, highly secretive world of North Korea’s political elite has always been difficult to decipher, making judgments about the power and stability of its leadership speculative at best.
After Kim Jong Il’s death Dec. 17, numerous experts had suggested that his son was too young and inexperienced to command genuine loyalty and some had gone so far as to forecast the country’s imminent collapse.
One year on, both North Korea and its youthful leader are still in place and Kim has apparently shored up his power base with a series of high-level personnel changes in the military and party leadership.
“You still can’t say Kim Jong Un’s leadership is fully in control. But the launch will at least offer a symbolic platform to further strengthen his position,” said Ham Hyeong Pil from the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
But several experts stressed that any sense of national pride and solidarity triggered by the rocket launch would be short-lived, given the grim realities of the impoverished North’s economic situation.
“It’s a short-term boost, but long term, it’s probably not that helpful,” said Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation and U.S. President Barack Obama’s adviser on Korea policy during his first White House presidential campaign.
“It probably helps him with the military. I don’t know if it solves any underlying problems that he’s facing. In fact, when you’re talking about food or economic development or opening, it puts them in a further constrained position,” Flake said.
In recent months, there have been unconfirmed reports in the South Korean media of instances of civic unrest in the North, and experts have noted recent hardline speeches by Kim urging the security and judicial authorities to crack down on dissent.
With the U.N. Security Council now talking about toughening of sanctions against Pyongyang, the Kim regime’s international isolation is likely to deepen in the months and years ahead.
“But over the long term, when the dust settles down, North Korea and the United States will find no other alternative but to seek dialogue,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor at Dongguk University in South Korea.
In both 2006 and 2009, the North followed long-range missile launches with a nuclear test, but professor Kim said Pyongyang would probably opt to keep a low profile for a while.
“I don’t see it moving on to a third nuclear test,” he said. “Instead, it will take a breather.”