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Pyongyang’s next move after the missile fizzle?

by John J. Metzler

United Nations

In the bizarre ritual of North Korea, a recent rocket launch was intended to put the icing on the dynastic cake of the centennial birthday celebrations of the late dictator Kim Il Sung. The world press had been invited to the reclusive neo-Stalinist state, and the stage was aptly set for the kind of mass rally, goose-stepping parades that define North Korea, as well as for the formal political enthronement of Kim Jong Un. But the anticipated climax of the celebrations — a long-range missile launch — fizzled out and dropped into the Yellow Sea.

After the missile’s failure shortly after takeoff, all eyes shifted from the political extravaganza in Pyongyang to the abject failure of a near billion dollar boondoggle that an impoverished socialist state can hardly afford. For a country living on United Nations humanitarian aid, this became an epic embarrassment.

The real question becomes — as it did with two previous missile failures in 2006 and 2009 — does the regime go for an encore nuclear test? Or to “save face” both inside North Korea and abroad, does Kim stage a military provocation against South Korea?

The spectacular scientific failure of the Unha-3 rocket, which was purportedly launching a satellite, became an acute embarrassment to the hubris of the regime that was commemorating Kim Il Sung’s birthday as much as it was celebrating the leadership transition to his untested grandson Kim Jong Un. In the Marxist Monarchy that rules North Korea, power had passed from the elder Kim “Great Leader” to his son Jong Il, aka “Dear Leader,” who died in December, and now officially to the 28 year old Jong Un.

Following the April 13 missile fiasco, the U.N. Security Council came out rhetorically swinging and in a Presidential Statement (although not a formal resolution) strongly condemning the attempted launch by North Korea of a so-called satellite, stressing the action as well as any other use of ballistic missile technology is a “serious violation of United Nations resolutions.”

The statement by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is president of the UNSC for April added, “The Security Council deplores that such a launch has caused grave security concerns in the region.”

East Asian regional security, especially that of South Korea and Japan, is profoundly threatened by the antics of a loose-cannon regime in Pyongyang.

Earlier, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, himself a South Korean, described the missile launch as “deplorable.”

Indeed, on Feb. 29, the Obama administration was coaxed into offering 240,000 tons of humanitarian food aid to the socialist paradise in exchange for Pyongyang’s promises of good behavior on the missile front. Though that deal has now been canceled, as the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “The larger administration error is that it continues to bounce between the equally futile alternatives of engagement with the regime and condemnation at the U.N.”

A source who recently visited Pyongyang, the Wizard of Oz-like capital of North Korea, produced amazing photos of a city with impressive architecture but with few cars, flickering lights, heroic propaganda posters, and people scavenging for roots and bits of bark. This could have been China during the Cultural Revolution, circa 1967, but it’s North Korea a few weeks ago.

But inside the totalitarian time warp that envelops North Korea, the surreal becomes the real. Much of the dynastic Kim Cult rests on a melange of mythology combining Marxist-Leninism, hyper-nationalism, Confucianism, and traditional rural shamanism. This political witches brew has long served the communist elite.

I’m intrigued by a haunting photo of Kim Jong Un standing next to three dutifully clapping army officers; the taciturn faces of the military men look determined , dour, yet somehow not respectful. New Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is clapping but looking askance at his military praetorians, who evoke the proverbial principle “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

In a speech to his assembled minions, Kim Jong Un stressed that his “first, second and third priorities” were to strengthen the military, thus continuing his father’s Military First policies. But has the million-man People’s Army really accepted the untested and untrained rule of Kim Jong Un, a four-star general who never as much spent a day in the Boy Scouts? Time will soon tell.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent who covers diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of the book “Trans-Atlantic Divide: The USA/Euroland Rift?” (University Press, 2010).