It came as no surprise when North Korea’s recent rocket ended up plopping into the sea. Launching rockets is hard, hard like… rocket science… and every country that has attempted putting something in space has suffered numerous setbacks. South Korea has had two failed attempts so far. And North Korea’s engineers were up against a very immovable deadline, making errors even more likely.
No, the real surprise was that the regime admitted that the satellite failed to make it into orbit. North Korea has claimed two successful satellite launches – in 1998 and 2009, although other countries monitored those too and said they ended up at the bottom of the ocean instead of in space. By admitting failure this time, the new leadership has admitted fallibility on a key project inherited from Kim Jong-il. After the two previous launches were claimed as successes, from the North Korean people’s perspective their country under new leadership could not manage to repeat a trick that had already been pulled off twice, and which even worked at the first attempt 14 years ago. This is far from ideal for a new, untested, low-legitimacy leadership. Bizarre. Why didn’t they just lie again?
Nobody outside of Pyongyang knows. But that doesn’t stop the speculation.
EVERYONE WILL FIND OUT ANYWAY!
The standard explanation at the moment is that the regime recognized that with the amount of foreign journalists in the country at the time, and information flows being increasingly hard to control inside the country, the North Korean people (particularly the mid to upper elites) would find out about the failure anyway, so it would be better to “get out in front of the story”. The problem with this explanation is that the North Korean regime has always had a good go at attempting to control information flows in the past, and no-one would have been surprised if they just kicked all the journalists out and pretended it was a great success again. So this new more honest approach would represent significantly new pragmatism on the part of the North Korean regime in their public relations.
NEW NORTH KOREAN OPENNESS?
Similar to the explanation above but featuring a more proactive regime. The North Korean leadership invited an unprecedented number of foreign journalists to report on the Kim Il-sung centenary celebrations. They have allowed the AP to open a Pyongyang bureau (this happened under Kim Jong-il, but there was speculation at the time that Kim Jong-un had influence over the decision). North Korea has moved to having more live reporting of events and news on domestic state media under Kim Jong-un. And of course Kim Jong-un made that speech. Does all this represent a new level of comfort (or overconfidence?) with a relatively more open news environment under the new leadership, and proactive steps to break with the super-reclusive past? If so, then the admission of the failure of the rocket launch would fit into this pattern.
LACK OF INTER-AGENCY COORDINATION?
One possible explanation which is a bit more “out there” is that the admission of failure may represent a lack of inter-agency coordination (or competition between different factions) within the regime. A lack of inter-agency coordination in the post-Kim Jong-il era has been put forward as a possible reason for North Korea’s puzzling flip-flop between negotiations with the U.S. Government leading to the Leap Day Agreement, to announcing its rocket launch just days after and therefore destroying that agreement. North Korea has gone from negotiations to provocations before, but during the Kim Jong-il era these moves had more apparent strategic thinking behind them and they chose their timing well. This is not obviously the case this time, and it looks like the regime either badly miscalculated or that the hardliners in the regime screwed over those favouring engagement–or let them screw themselves over (there are arguably no real “softliners” in the regime, but there are those that favour engagement, relatively). If it is true that intra-regime competition is being allowed to come to the surface in an unwieldy way under Kim Jong-un, then it is worth considering that admitting the failure of the rocket launch undermines the prestige and status of the military and hardliners inside the country. If anybody wanted to weaken the hardliners inside the regime, then admitting the failure of the rocket launch would not be a bad first step, even though it may motivate the regime to do another nuclear test.
Any other ideas on why the North Korean leadership admitted failure this time? Answer on a postcard! Or leave a comment below.
SOKEEL J. PARK | Research & Strategy Analyst