Kim Comes Clean on Rocket Failure, but Can North Korea Handle the Truth?

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Bobby Yip / Reuters

A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site.

After North Korea announced that it planned to launch a satellite in mid-April to mark the centenary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung, it was inevitable that it would go ahead, despite the international pressure to refrain. Likewise, it was probable that once North Korea launched the Unha-3 rocket, something would go wrong. The hermit kingdom’s previous efforts at launching satellites in 1998 and 2009 ended in failure, and Friday’s attempt fell harmlessly into the Yellow Sea.

What was surprising about this year’s edition of the North Korean satellite spectacle was that the regime acknowledged its failure, both to the outside world and to its people. “It was extremely unusual and almost completely unexpected,” says Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea watcher and a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “I did expect them to do what they did in the past, that is to lie and say it was another brilliant success.”

(MORE: North Korea’s Rocket Fails, But More Fireworks Could Follow)

So why the turnabout? Unfortunately Pyonyang’s flash of openness didn’t extend to explaining its decision. It is clear that Kim Jong Un, the twenty-something year-old North Korean leader who took over after his father’s death in December, isn’t following exactly in the late Kim Jong Il’s footsteps. But it’s unlikely that Kim Jong Un is straying so far as to follow the path of Mikhail Gorbachev, who pushed for greater openness as leader of the Soviet Union following the stumbling official response to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

On Sunday, Kim Jong Un gave a lengthy public address, something avoided by his father. But the talk, at a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, was old fare. The speech praised the country’s military and coincided with a massive military parade. “The military and technical superiority is no longer a monopoly of the imperialists,” he said, according to North Korean state-run media, adding that “gone are the days when the enemies could threaten and blackmail” North Korea with nuclear weapons. Friday’s satellite launch failure wasn’t mentioned.

(PHOTOS: North Korea Prepares to Launch a Missile)

The motivation to acknowledge the rocket flop earlier may have come from the realization that truth will come out, both domestically and abroad. The U.S. and South Korea soon reported on the failure of the North Korean rocket soon after its launch. But more worrying for Pyongyang was that it fell into waters about 165 km west of the Korean peninsula, meaning debris from the launch could be retrieved by foreign navies. “Most likely it would be presented to the world and it would be very difficult to deny, unlike previous cases when the rockets exploded far over the Pacific,” says Lankov. “It happened very close to shore and was seen by every naval ship in region. So they would look foolish if they denied it.”

And there’s a risk to the North Korean regime that they could look foolish domestically as well. Information is still tightly controlled in the totalitarian state, but its citizens are gradually gaining greater understanding of the world outside through illegal radio broadcasts and smuggled recordings of movies and television shows. The level of outside information is small but “unimaginable before,” says Lankov. “In the past (the North Korean authorities) said that South Korea was essentially a living hell, a place of prostitution and beggars and so on. They stopped saying that and over the last few years they have said South Korea is doing relatively well. Why? They know people watch South Korean movies and TV shows. They decided it doesn’t make sense to lie.”

MORE: Meet Kim Jong Un

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