Rhetoric Meets Reality: North Korea’s Rocket Falls Apart

In the run-up of the domestically heralded and internationally condemned testing of North Korea’s Unha-3 launch vehicle, the Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang’s official mouthpiece, trumpeted that the successful launch would “proudly herald and highlight North Korea as a new Asian economic tiger and a new member of the elite club of economic powers.”  Unfortunately for Pyongyang, the test did not quite pan out as anticipated. The Unha-3 rocket exploded into twenty pieces barely a minute after the launch and fell into South Korean waters.

This debacle represents a significant setback for the regime of newly inaugurated North Korean leader Kim-Jong-un, who intended to utilize the launch as a means of successfully culminating his succession to his father’s position. Indeed, the launch date appeared to coincide with the annual session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s primary parliamentary body.

Furthermore, the disintegration of the projectile over South Korean waters made it nearly impossible for Pyongyang to claim that the test resulted in a successful outcome as it claimed following earlier missile tests in 2006 and 2009. In a secretive society such as North Korea, the image of the state represents a key factor in the legitimization of its rule.

While the political ramifications of the launch will likely negatively impact Kim Jong-Un, the ramifications for North Korea’s neighbors with regard to its pursuit of nuclear weapons remain unclear. In an optimistic scenario, the failure of the launch could weaken the credibility of hardliners in the regime and embolden moderates to reassert control, thereby prompting North Korea to return to the table. On the other hand, the failure could force the regime to resort to continued displays of aggression to suppress internal challenges to its rule.  Either way, this past week has not been a good one for Kim Jong-Un.

-Rahul Subramanian

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