North Korean Rocket Launch Fails.

This just in:

A U.S. official has confirmed that a North Korean long-range missile broke apart in air after launch. U.S. officials say they believe the missile is believed to have crashed into the sea, ABC News reports. South Korea’s Defense Ministry says that North Korea has fired a long-range rocket. Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters in a nationally televised news conference that the rocket was fired at 7:39 a.m.

Feel free to make your own bawdy dysfunction references. I have a comment section for that very purpose.

Update 1: So frankly, I hope the failure wasn’t accidental, but this still beats a successful test. And despite getting no scientific, propaganda, or marketing benefit from this test, North Korea will now face consequences for having done this despite being warned not to:

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak plans to hold an emergency meeting of security related ministers at 9 a.m. to discuss countermeasures, officials said. The North had said it would launch the rocket between April 12-16 to put what it claims is a satellite into orbit to mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.

But South Korea, the United States and other regional powers had urged Pyongyang to call off the launch, seeing it as a pretext to disguise a long-range missile test, banned under a U.N. Security Council resolution. Foreign news reports said the U.N. Security Council plans to convene an emergency meeting. [Yonhap]

Update 2: Yes, the technology failed, but that doesn’t mean that North Korean missiles aren’t still deadly … to North Korean kids.

Not only was this a propaganda fiasco for Kim Jong Eun, but it could be an intelligence boon for us:

No element of the rocket reached space, said a U.S. official, who based that conclusion on data collected by the United States from its first few moments aloft. “This was supposed to be associated with (Kim Jong Un’s) ascension to power. So for this thing to fail … is incredibly embarrassing,” said Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs for the U.S. National Security Council and now a Georgetown University professor.

The launch occurred at 7:39 a.m. Friday, both Yonhap and YTN reported, citing South Korean officials. Immediately afterward, the South Korean military dispatched helicopters and ships in an attempt to find debris related to the rocket launch, according to YTN.

Update 3: OFK has exclusive video of the launch:

This was such a colossal embarrassment for North Korea — at a time when it’s trying to build prestige for a new figurehead leader — that its leaders will be under extreme pressure to redeem themselves. A nuclear test is the very least we can expect in the next few months.

Update 4: The interesting thing here is that the North Koreans have admitted that the launch failed, which is new for North Korea. In 1998, for example, another North Korean missile test failed, but the North Koreans claimed that that its rocket lifted a satellite into orbit to play “immortal revolutionary hymns” to Kim Il Sung. I suppose some will call this concession a sign of some new North Korean perestroika or Pyongyang Spring; we’ve seen a false dawns predicted for even less. On the other hand, this is a regime that has recently cracked down on border-crossing — punishments now are much more severe than they were just two years ago — and which still goes to great lengths to deceive foreign media.

The more likely explanation is the same one that applies to North Korea’s decision to televise the World Cup live, only to have everyone with access to the broadcast see the North Korean team trounced. In North Korea, the groupthink probably favors boldness and punishes caution, conflating it with the denial of its own innate superiority. So North Korea gambled big that all of this hype would be a huge boost to its regime’s new figurehead on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, and it lost big. And unlike 1998, when the regime knew that the truth couldn’t get in, the regime is no longer capable of suppressing big news — and it is North Korea’s own regime that made this big news. Marcus Noland, interpreting refugee survey data published in Witness to Transformation, concludes that North Koreans are “increasingly bold about consuming foreign news at the same time that it becomes increasingly available.” National pride is probably about the last effective cohesive force in North Korean propaganda, so this failure probably won’t destabilize the regime, but it will reenforce the cynicism that probably prevails among North Koreans outside Pyongyang.

Even the AP’s Jean H. Lee, who has mostly filed warmed-over North Korean propaganda since her assignment to Pyongyang, had to write a story that was (a) newsworthy and (b) unfavorable for the regime, although you’ll see at the bottom of the story that seven other AP correspondents (really?) who are based in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington wrote parts of it:

The rocket’s destruction suggests the country has yet to master the technology needed to build long-range missiles that could threaten the United States. Still, worries remain about North Korea’s nuclear program amid reports that it may be planning an atomic test soon.

The launch is also a setback for the government of new leader Kim Jong Un, which had projected the satellite as a show of strength amid persistent economic hardship while he solidifies power following the death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, four months ago.

It will be interesting to see how the North Koreans react if Lee ends up putting her name on enough stories that fail to toe the regime’s line. Either way, it’s hard to see how this arrangement can possibly end well for the AP.

Attention now turns to the U.N.:

Clinton also made clear that the moment the rocket left the launchpad, Obama would drop efforts to engage North Korea and would instead pursue further international sanctions.

“Pyongyang has a clear choice: It can pursue peace and reap the benefits of closer ties with the international community, including the United States; or it can continue to face pressure and isolation. If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the Security Council to take further action,” she warned.

The failure of the test may ease pressure on President Obama to get firm action from the U.N., but then, this is an election year. If the Security Council can’t overcome Chinese stalling and do better than a presidential statement, Governor Romney will be able to make an issue of this. That argument would have particular merit now, as North Korea reportedly contemplates a nuclear test. A strong response now might still deter the next North Korean provocation in this endless loop, and would play well with most voters. The last time this cycle replayed, in 2009, the Security Council issued a presidential statement, and the North Koreans tested a nuke shortly thereafter.


  1. Clearly the brigandish imperialists and their running-dog lackeys shot it down in a desperate attempt to halt Juche progress.

  2. With the launch failing 90 seconds in, it was probably visible from the launch site when it failed. I wonder if they’ll do a rerun of claiming that it made it into orbit.

  3. I agree that this is a huge embarrassment for the Kim regime. It appears their rocket technology may have regressed compared to 2009. Something to watch for though is what provocation the North Koreans will come up with next to save face after this failure? The most likely thing would be for them to try a third nuclear test.

  4. Now how do they explain this to all those foreign reporters being lodged in Pyongyang now that were supposed to witness the might of Kim Jung Eun to the world? Embarrassment achieved. Not only did you just lose $800 million dollars which you could not afford to lose NK, now you get no food. Oh what it must feel like to be a news correspondent on the ground there, holding in your laughter until the plane leaves the tarmac.

  5. I wonder whether there is any chance that this rocket was sabotaged or somehow destroyed from space by some weapon the U.S. is testing. The fact that the DPRK had so many international observers from the media in attendance must indicate that it placed great importance and significance on a successful launch.

    I’d wager that there will be at least two nuclear tests following in short order. One hardly suffices to compensate for this humiliation.

  6. ABC radio news just mentioned that some news organ of DPRK is admitting it failed. Haven’t heard yet what spin they put on it.

  7. This is a priceless opportunity for Kim Jong-Un. He could accept the resignations of the senior leaders responsible for the nuclear and rocket projects, and he could then institute economic and political reforms, and finally he could normalize relations with South Korea, Japan, and the United States. That would pave the way for the Glans Plan. Future generations of Koreans may bring flower baskets to a monumental statue of the Eternal Unifier.

    I don’t think he’ll do it.

  8. I would give Kim Jong Un’s left arm for video of the rocket failure. I hope it was spectacular.

  9. I am reminded of an episode of M*A*S*H where an old, dilapidated North Korean military plane was piloted by someone they refered to as “5 oclock Charlie”. He would arrive daily at 5 pm, and would fly over camp and manually toss a bomb over the side of the plane in a vain attempt to destroy the ammo dump near the place. The N Korean missle program is strikingly similar in its failures.

    But I will say this for Charlie; his hand tossed bomb at least went off, which is more than you can say for the N Korean nuclear program.

    The spirit of 5 oclock Charlie lives on. His decendants are running the N Korean space program…

  10. So today’s events suggest that the NK govt. was forced to concede launch failure (not merely by KCNA for the foreign journos, but also on state TV) by the presence of the corps of journalists in-country, and as such this could therefore support the notion that if the AP would stop being so pathetic and simply start asking some sensible (rather than needlessly confrontational) questions, their presence might start to have some genuine value. Thoughts?

    Note, being less pathetic does not mean a story about accidentally going around a wrong turn and ending up a few hundred meters off the beaten track.

  11. pretty decent article about probably why the rocket didn’t make it without having to go into sheldon speak.,8599,2111703,00.html#ixzz1rx5PPMBo

    so when’s the letter of condemnation from the UN Security Council which will take at least 4 council sessions to deliver because China and Russia thinks the wording is too harsh? oh and i’m giving odds that the NK UN rep will walk out in one of those sessions.

    …and then the follow up nuclear test coming say early June?

    maybe this is the catalyst the brings the doom of the regime because this was certainly the first time they ever admitted that anything failed.

  12. I was floored when I read that the North Koreans admitted on national television that the much-touted launch had failed.

    Holy carp!, I thought. Just what the heck is going on up there? Seriously, this seems like it could be a game-changer. During those four hours between failure and the news broadcast about the failure, someone high up made the conscious decision to forgo the perpetual hagiography and myth building and just say, “Look, we mucked up royally.”

    Why they are doing this is anybody’s guess, but my hope of hopes is that we may actually be seeing a change in the regime, where a Western-educated kid is now in power and sees how screwed up things are and wants to see a change. Maybe the “North Korea’s Gorvachev and/or Deng” moniker will be appropriate after all.

  13. I subscribe to Joshua’s “World Cup” theory — the failure was in some way observable by ordinary North Koreans with their own eyes, making it impossible to cover up or lie about.

  14. Gary S., I don’t think that’s an adequate explanation for the (relatively) immediate disclosure of failure.

    First, they continue to lie to the North Korean people about a number of things related to the regime, things that, à la the World Cup theory, would eventually be discovered by many to be false, so why be immediately honest about this?

    When it blew to bits, it was dozens of horizontal and vertical kilometers away from what was a sparsely populated area, so I’m not sure how observable it was to ordinary North Koreans with their own eyes (think Challenger disaster and the high-tech stuff in 1986 that was needed to videotape or photograph that). Moreover, any explosion could that would somehow be observed could easily be explained as going from stage 1 to stage 2 or some such. Ultimately, naysayers consuming outside media may have little more credibility or influence on the non-defecting hoi polloi than, say, a British or Russian media source touting the Obama birther stuff would have on a general American audience.

    Second, by shifting gears and not lying about this particular thing, it suggests they care about what the people think about the regime. Perhaps care as in worry, and that is an increasingly real thing for the regime. But what it is they are hoping to prevent or to effect by the disclosure, I’m not sure, but one can speculate.

    This one event is by no means a sign that perestroika has gripped the regime. But the conditions for perestroika, based on our n=1 analysis of the past, seem to be in place: a regime that once tightly controlled all media but now is aware that it is undermined by outside news sources (think East Germans watching Dallas and Radio Free Europe), a brand new leader with a background that indicates a proclivity to regard the West positively, and increasingly deteriorating economic conditions that affect even the elite.

    (And on a related note, I dare say that there may be peretroika-minded people in the regime who set this event up for a fail.)

  15. After my comment and as I was reworking my previous comment into my own post, it occurred to me that we would be talking about glasnost (openness), not perestroika (restructuring). The Chinese are trying to push perestroika, but any deliberate attempt to be more forthcoming with the North Korean people about incredible screw-ups like this would be (if applicable) glasnost.

    I ended the aforementioned post with a few questions: First, if glasnost or perestroika were to occur right now or in the future, what do you think it would look like (a different question from what it should look like)?

    Second, if glasnost and perestroika were occurring right now or in the near future, might it not be in part because of the very Plan B that you have been pushing and that US President Obama seems to be implementing in some way?

    Moreover, if it actually were occurring, would you be able to recognize it as such and even be willing to acknowledge it? The murderous Pyongyang regime has been so epically horrible and cruel to its people, and that makes it hard to imagine any change, but does the past make future change so unlikely that we can just ignore the possibility (while remaining very cautious)?

  16. From a Communist, Marxist or Stalinist perspective, glasnost and perestroika failed. There is no possibility of the DPRK following Gorbachev.

    The Chinese way has been to control politics and freedom of expression tightly, while allowing the urban proletariat to make as much money as possible, and limiting the rural peasantry to slow progress if possible. It’s getting out of control because of faxes, cell phones and the web.

    The DPRK doesn’t have to change to continue. It tightly controls politics and freedom of expression; rather than an urban proletariat, it allows certain limited, privileged military cadres to progress to great riches. After Baby Kim’s minders use the failure of the launch to devastate the upper ranks of the military and rocket forces, the Party’s one future concession will probably be to allow the rural and urban serfs to grow their own food, and survive at subsistence level on corn and meth.

    The hermit Kingdom doesn’t need us, and it’ll need us even less once Rason starts bringing in the big bucks.

  17. Kim Jong-Un might understand that he’ll never lose territory to Japan or the United States, and even if he loses territory to South Korea, it’s still Korea. But he could lose his northern provinces to China. That’s his real external threat: China.

  18. Kushibo, I lived in Florida in 1986. Anyone with eyes could look up and see that something was seriously wrong with the Challenger, just from the trajectory of the vapor trails, and how many smaller trails there were all of a sudden. I was one of the many who did. It is to this day the most disturbing thing I’ve ever personally witnessed.

    Granted, I had access to non government-controlled news media, who provided context. And the Unha-3 is not even remotely the Space Shuttle. But based on what I’ve read about when and where the rocket failed, I think it would be very difficult to lie to ground observers about what happened.

  19. Prepare to be disgusted. The link below is an interview with the AP’s Executive Editor about their bureau in Pyongyang. Serious questions are answered only with dissembling responses. At one point she even compares the US administration’s remonstrations about providing the North Korean regime with a propaganda venue to the North Korean regime’s systematic censorship. She’s either totally disingenuous or she’s insane. Either way, the AP’s deal with the Devil will make a lot more sense after listening to this:

  20. I read some good news today. Three of Asia’s tigers just achieved something far more substantial than a peace treaty. They agreed to help feed each other.

    Japan, China, and South Korea all threaten each other regularly. China fishes in Korea’s waters. Korea occupies an island Japan claims. Each has a history of war with the other. Those things matter, but not as much as the ties that bind them. These countries know that as neighbors, they either stand or fall together.

    Right in the middle of this triangle sits North Korea. Unmentioned. Starving. Because they’re jerks.

  21. thomas wrote:

    Japan, China, and South Korea all threaten each other regularly.

    I know this is not the gist of your comment, but how exactly does South Korea threaten either Japan or China? And what “history of war” does South Korea have with the others within the past few centuries where it was the instigator?

    These are not trivial matters. Not to excuse the murderous regime in Pyongyang, but North Korea has chosen a path of hands-off belligerence in part as a defense against its former occupiers and invaders, who now are afraid to come near.

  22. @kushibo … I certainly don’t want to argue about it, and would defer to a demonstrably more informed opinion than my own … but what do you call Daemado Day and the police force on Tsushima Island? I don’t personally care who has the island, but Korea and Japan sure as hell do. How about the new base on Jeju? (I support the base, but it’s military gamesmanship to threaten China, no doubt of it.) My point isn’t who is to blame, but simply that there is friction that the involved nations are willing to overlook in the name of the common good. Surely, that’s obvious.

    As for your ‘not an excuse’ for North Korea, you leave me confused. Perhaps you didn’t express yourself well.

  23. @kushibo … If you speak English as a second language, I owe you an apology for that last sentence. I intended to be snarky, not insulting.

  24. The last thing Joshua wants, I’m sure, is a Tokto discussion here, but Tsushima/Taemado are not the equivalent of Tokto/Takeshima in that South Korea makes no official claim on Tsushima/Taemado, which is entirely different from Japan making an official claim on Tokto/Takeshima.

    Taemado Day was the childish outburst in 2005 of a provincial government involved in a tit-for-tat over Shimane’s prefectural-level strengthening of a national-level on-going claim. It was, if I remember correctly, officially disavowed by Seoul, as was Shimane’s act by Tokyo, but Tokyo’s nation-level claim on Tokto remained.

    IOW, South Korea makes no claim on any Japanese-occupied territory, but Japan makes a claim on ROK-occupied territory (Sorry, we’re ROKupied!), one that stems from its brutal imperialist past to boot!

    So again, South Korea is not behaving the same as the PRC or Japan.

  25. thomas wrote:

    How about the new base on Jeju? (I support the base, but it’s military gamesmanship to threaten China, no doubt of it.)

    I suppose in the mind of China, a defensive base or a base used to protect sea lanes from pirates is a “threat.”

    But in reality, South Korea makes no claim on Chinese territory nor is it in any position to invade or attack part of China. But I suppose Beijing, as per usual, finds any instance of no longer bending over and taking it as a “threat.” The rest of us, however, ought to no better.

    Again, South Korea is not behaving like its neighbors Japan and the PRC.

    As for my comment about North Korea, I could have made it clearer. China’s and Japan’s “recent” (late 19th century to present) past hostile actions on the Korean peninsula and their attempts to control Korea are factors in Pyongyang’s chosen method of defending its borders, which is to be hostile and belligerent in a way that screams, “Hands off!” and makes North Korea’s former occupiers (i.e., China and Japan) afraid to come near.

  26. @kushibo … I understand your perspective. We all want to think we are the team with the good guys. It’s easy to overlook the larger picture for the sake of regional interests. To me, that appears to be what you are doing. You can’t analyze the threat to China from Jeju unless you include American military plans, and when you do so you see that Korea is doing a bit more than just defending itself. As for Tsushima, your own description (“childish outburst”, “official claim”, “ROKupied!”) is full of the language of war. Go ahead, tell me again how Korea isn’t aggressive.

    Enough of this mildang. You aren’t going to take me to bed. :]

    – t

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