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     Apr 14, 2012

Failure will hit Kim hard
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - North Korea's missile-cum-satellite broke up in the air on Friday morning, so did a beacon of hope for the building of a "strong and prosperous nation".

The news of the failed launch may have shocked Pyongyang, which had for weeks trumpeted the endeavor as a major achievement, but it has brought some comfort to Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. These were among countries that called on

North Korea to call off the launch - experts say the Unha-3 carrier's rocket technology could be used to strike the US and other targets with a long-range missile.

In a very rare move, North Korea ate boiled crow. It acknowledged at noon on state television that a satellite launched a few hours earlier from the west coast had failed to enter into orbit, splintering into pieces over the Yellow Sea soon after take-off. "The earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said. "Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure."

The failure is a major setback for the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun, who aimed to boost his domestic legitimacy and rigidity by launching what the North called an Earth-observation satellite two days ahead of celebrations for the 100th anniversary on Sunday of the birth of founding father Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-eun's "yes" men and Pyongyang people who were in an enthusiastically festive mood will also be devastated.

"Inviting many foreign media, North Korea has become an object of public ridicule in the world," Masao Okonogi, emeritus professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a noted expert on the affairs of the Korean Peninsula, told Asia Times Online on Friday. "It has acted with arrogance and recklessness more than needed. To recover fallen prestige, it may adopt a more belligerent stance towards other nations."

Okonogi said that since Pyongyang believed the US, Japan and South Korea would now not take North Korea's threats seriously, given the failed rocket launch, it would take the risky step of conducting its third nuclear test.

"North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry," the US White House said in a statement after the launch. "North Korea's long-standing development of missiles and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not brought it security - and never will."

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Friday ordered an emergency meeting to condemn the failed launch, but it is unlikely to order immediate new sanctions against the isolated state, although Japan and South Korea are taking tougher stances.

This is because it is believed China will only allow the UNSC to vote on a resolution condemning the launch, but will not back any attempts to impose fresh sanctions against Pyongyang. Experts expect Beijing will do everything in its power to prevent North Korea from being destabilized.

Since the beginning of the Cold War, North Korea had been seen as China's first line of defense and strategic buffer zone vis-a-vis the Western bloc, led by the US. Beijing is also afraid of a refugee flood once public safety gets worse in North Korea.

Hiroyasu Akutsu, a professor and senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, a Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) think-tank, takes a similar view as Okonogi.

"North Korea aims to become a science-and-technology powerhouse as well as a strong and prosperous nation," Akutsu said. "So today's rocket launch failure should be very shocking to them."

Akustu said, depending on how strongly the UNSC) acted against North Korea, led by the lobbying of the US, Japan and South Korea, the risk remained that Pyongyang would continue to resort to missile-firing, nuclear tests and other provocations to demonstrate to the rest of world its military capabilities.

"Kim Jong-eun's new regime is calling for a continuation of songun [military first] politics, so it will continue to pursue its nuclear and missile development programs to boost its national prestige and strengthen the regime's foundations."

North Korea conducted similar long-range Taepodong-2 tests in 2006 and 2009, but with unsuccessful results.

A source close to Japan's defense intelligence said Kim Jong-eun pushed the rocket-firing button on Friday under pressure from the powerful military to coincide with the celebrations for the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, despite a lack of full preparations for the launch.

Akutsu at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies also pointed out that among the military power elite is Korean People's Army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho, believed to be one of Kim Jong-eun's closest confidants.

Ri is thought to have been a supervisor of Jong-eun when the young leader studied at the Kim Il Sung Military Academy. His thesis was said to be "Missile Guidance by GPS", according to the Japanese intelligence community.

Among other military officers who pressed the young master of the nation to conduct the launch include Pak To-chun, Ju Kyu-chang and Paek Se-bong. They have been called the "three-man team of missile guidance" by the South Korean intelligence community and were recently promoted to high-ranking generals, despite their previous civilian status.

Japanese experts on North Korea think Kim Jong-eun cannot easily punish them over the launch failure because of his heavy dependence on them in terms of political management and the ruling of the country. Akutsu said they would more likely receive an amnesty thanks to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth for Sunday.

Okonogi at Keio University, meanwhile, pointed out that North Korean moderates such as its foreign affairs bureaucrats will gain more power, rather than hardliners in military circles in the wake of the debacle.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. Besides Asia Times Online, he also writes for Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. His twitter is @TakahashiKosuke

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