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     Apr 14, 2012

North Korean rocket hopes dashed
By Donald Kirk

SEOUL - The failure of North Korea's Unha 3 missile leaves one great mystery to which there may never be a definitive answer. The question is whether or not it was carrying a weather satellite that the North Koreans had been saying for weeks would go into orbit in the interests of "scientific research".

The rocket plunged into the Yellow Sea little more than one

minute after liftoff at 7:39 am, Korea time, raising the possibility that floating debris may give a few clues as to why it failed and how it was made.

Two South Korean destroyers, and some smaller craft, were churning up the waters more than 160 kilometers off the coast while helicopters and observation planes criss-crossed the skies, all looking for odds and ends that would, if nothing else, have a certain souvenir value. The rocket was to have been on a trajectory taking it over or near the southernmost Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa and past the northern Philippines before landing in the south Pacific.

The chances of actually finding the satellite, said to be about the size of an office filing cabinet, ranged from minimal to none, however, considering for one thing that the whole contraption would be too heavy to float and, for another, that almost certainly no satellite was on board.

The North Koreans, though, are putting their own spin on the story, sticking to the claim that the missile was carrying a satellite. Four hours after the Pentagon announced the failure of the rocket, a female news reader in traditional hanbok Korean dress announced on North Korea's State TV network simply that the satellite had failed to go into orbit. "Scientists, technicians and experts are looking into the failure," was all she said, giving no hint the missile had broken up into 20 or so pieces, probably at the point of the first separation long before it would have launched the satellite.

United States and South Korean officials have long believed there's no clue the missile was carrying a satellite and the whole purpose was to test a war machine that theoretically could deliver a nuclear warhead to the US west coast. North Korea still claims two previous versions of the missile did launch satellites, first in August1998, second in April 2009, though scientists around the world say they have seen no signs of those satellites in orbit.

The presence of foreign journalists in Pyongyang may have forced North Korea to come up with the story of the failure of the satellite if not the rocket. For four hours North Korea did not announce the launch, leaving the journalists to get the news of the disaster from calls from their home offices. Inevitably, they besieged their North Korean hosts with questions that had somehow to be answered.

However the North Koreans paper over the failure, it has to come as a huge embarrassment during the build-up for massive celebrations on Sunday marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the North's founding "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung. Rather than explain, North Korean TV broadcast video footage of scenes from the life of Kim Il-sung, who led the country for nearly 50 years before his death in 1994.

North Korea, however, was not expected to let such a disaster interfere with the celebration - or to acknowledge during the celebrations that the space program was anything other than a tremendous success honoring the legacy of Kim Il-sung and his son and heir Kim Jong-il, the "dear leader" who died in December. For North Korea, projecting the image of "a strong and prosperous nation" at the birthday bash for Kim Il-sung, the failure is a glitch, not a catastrophe.

"They will propagandize it as scientific achievement," predicted Kim Tae-woo, a long-time defense analyst and president of the Korea Institute for National Unification. "They will say it has been successful. It is propaganda for their own people."

North Korea was also sure to remain defiant while the United Nations Security Council meets to consider how to respond. The Security Council basically has the choice of issuing a statement of "condemnation" of the launch or strengthening sanctions imposed after North Korea test-fired the earlier version of the rocket in 2009 and then conducted its second underground nuclear test six weeks later.

"North Korea will get angry at the action of the UN and they will use that as an excuse for another nuclear test," Kim said. Satellite imagery of excavations in the area of the first two underground tests, in October 2006 and May 2009, he said, show "they are preparing for a test."

South Korean sources said the rocket had fallen into the sea west of Kunsan, a major port on the southwest South Korean coast. The South Korean destroyers, both equipped with the latest Aegis radar and ship-to-air missile systems, were already patrolling the waters, prepared to fire at portions of the missile if it seemed they might land on South Korean territory.

Although the US has a major air base at Kunsan, a US military spokesman said there was no sign US planes or ships would join in the search for pieces of the rocket. It seemed more than likely, however, that US ships and planes would eventually have to join the search considering how often and readily they leave nearby bases in Korea as well as Japan on regular military exercises.

But will North Korea want to carry on with the program in view of the tremendous costs and near universal international criticism?

Russia and China may not want to strengthen sanctions, which neither of them has enforced, but they're likely at least to join in pro forma condemnation by the UN Security Council.

The Russian ambassador has already agreed the launch of the rocket was in clear violation of sanctions imposed in June 2009 after the nuclear explosion. China, the source of almost all North Korea's fuel and much of its food, presumably views the North Korean program as undermining the "peace and stability" that it wants to preserve over the Korean peninsula. China, after all, is South Korea's biggest trading partner.

Kim Tae-woo believes North Korea is committed to developing missiles and nuclear weapons partly to prove the power of the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un, the kid, in his late 20s, who took over after his father, Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung, died in December. "What they are concerned about is not to improve the quality of life of their people," he said, "but to consolidate behind Kim Jong-eun."

Under the circumstances, violation of the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests as agreed on by US and North Korean negotiators on February 29 was irrelevant. What mattered, said Paek Chang-ho, head of what was called the "satellite control center," was that the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had personally ordered and fostered the North's space program before his death. In the months since then, Kim Jong-eun has appointed senior military officers with backgrounds in the North's nuclear program to senior positions.

At the same time, Kim Jong-eun has solidified his position with his elevation as first secretary of the Workers' Party and chairman of its central military commission.

The praise heaped on him at the party conference this week suggested his importance in perpetuating the songun or "military first" policy enunciated by his father.

He represents "the center of unity of the Workers' Party and the revolution," said 86-year-old Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly, hailing him as "the center of the leadership as well as the banner of all victories and glory of songun."

Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

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