PYONGYANG – North Korea’s failed rocket launch has dealt a severe blow to the country’s new regime, which hoped it would mark the start of a new chapter under recently appointed leader Kim Jong Un.
The failure severely dented North Korea’s pride ahead of the centennial Sunday of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, especially as the isolated country was seeking to use the rocket as a show of strength and a demonstration of its technological progress.
North Korean officials had earlier said Pyongyang viewed the launch as a “gift” to Kim Il Sung, the country’s “Eternal President.”
According to analysts, the launch was also intended as a gun salute for new leader Kim Jong Un, just as the North’s 1998 rocket launch was regarded as a salute to Kim Jong Il.
On Wednesday, Kim Jong Un was elected first secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, a new top post in the party created so he can consolidate his grip on power ahead of Sunday’s centennial.
But the plan backfired when the rocket exploded just a minute after blastoff, showering debris over the Yellow Sea. This led analysts to ponder the incident’s impact on North Koreans’ loyalty to their new, 29-year-old leader.
Kim Jong Un has yet to exert any leadership to address the North’s many urgent problems, including chronic food and power shortages, and analysts doubt he will be able to fulfil a promise by his father, longtime ruler Kim Jong Il, that the nation would finally achieve its long-stated goal of “opening the gates to a prosperous and powerful country” this year.
North Korean officials had maintained the rocket launch was aimed at sending an earth observation satellite into orbit for scientific and economic development, and dismissed the West’s view that this was merely a cover a long-range ballistic missile test, which Pyongyang is expressly banned from conducting under a U.N. Security Council resolution.
“Our country is affected every year by natural disasters, such as typhoons and flooding,” Ri Gi Song, a professor from the Institute of Economy at North Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences, said prior to the launch.
“The satellite will assess the level of natural disasters, crop estimates, and also collect data for weather forecasting and natural resources, which would lead to increased productivity in agriculture,” Ri said.
But many military experts argue rocket technologies similar to the North’s projectile can be applied to ballistic missiles, which in theory could allow Pyongyang to develop a delivery system for a nuclear weapon for long-range targets such as the United States, in addition to South Korea and Japan. North Korea would first have to successfully manufacture a small enough nuclear warhead to fit on a rocket, a prospect analysts consider to be years away.
To address the country’s electricity shortages, Pyongyang opened the Huichon Power Station on April 5, a major hydroelectric power plant in Jagang Province, to coincide with Kim Il Sung’s anniversary.
North Korea also plans to complete construction of a 100,000-kw light-water reactor at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon “by the end of the year, which could start operations immediately,” said Ri at the Academy of Social Sciences.
A light-water reactor is powered by low-enriched uranium, which, if highly enriched, can also be used to make nuclear weapons.
Analysts have also warned that uranium enrichment programs, even for civil use, would jeopardize a deal North Korea and Washington agreed in late February that would see Pyongyang suspend its nuclear activities in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid.
Under the terms of the deal, North Korea vowed to impose a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment in exchange for food aid from the U.S.
South Korean intelligence officials, however, have speculated Pyongyang is preparing to stage a third nuclear weapons test.