By Larry Shaughnessy, with reporting from Pam Benson and Jennifer Rizzo
Last week's unabashed failure of North Korea's Taepodong-2 rocket launch didn't last long enough to teach technical experts much if anything about the communist regime's engineering capabilities. But the West is learning a lot about the new leader from how he has conducted himself since.
The launch was part of a nationwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, which was the first major event since his grandson, Kim Jong Un, became leader of the regime.
"There's been a conscious strategy from the very beginning of his emergence into the public eye of trying to cultivate a linkage between Kim Jung Un and his grandfather," said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Long before the launch began, Kim's regime took the unusual step of inviting a group of international journalists, including CNN's Stan Grant, to see the launch facility and to cover the 100th birthday celebration. It was a risky move for the new leader. "Once they went down this road of inviting the foreign media in, if things didn't go well, there really wasn't going to be a recourse. They couldn't say the foreign media got it wrong," Snyder said.
Things did go wrong. The rocket blew into pieces 81 seconds after the launch.
So the regime headed by this young, inexperienced leader was forced to do something that it rarely does, admit to the North Korean public that the launch failed.
"It is extremely surprising that North Korea admitted to its populace that it was a failure. In times past they claimed it was a success even when the satellites went into the Pacific Ocean," said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation.
"I think it's likely that there was a realization by the regime that more information is getting in and out of North Korea than in times past."
Snyder agreed that the regime's iron-tight grip on information flowing into the country is getting rusty. "I think that it is an implicit admission of that, yes. Very much so," Snyder said. "Surveys of North Korean refugees show an increased information flow into North Korea."
A U.S. official told Security Clearance that some North Koreans are able to get some access to outside information.
"It is harder for North Korea to control all outside news, or prevent some of its people from leaving if they are determined to do so."
Another surprise came just days after the failed launch. Kim surprised just about everyone by delivering a 20-minute speech at the celebration of his grandfather's birth. It's a surprise because it's something his father and predecessor never did while in power.
He didn't mention the failed launch and he focused mainly on championing the military, but Snyder said he believes it is another example of Kim trying to emulate his grandfather more than his father. "I think that by deciding to give this public address, I think that Kim Jung Un is showing that he's a different personality than his father, that maybe his personality is closer to that of his grandfather," Snyder said. "I think that his personality is more accessible and less removed than his father."
The U.S. official told Security Clearance that the speech did not reveal too much new about the new leader's direction.
"The speech is interesting, but didn't break a great deal of new ground," the official said.
As part of the celebration, the military staged a huge parade, including a rocket that's bigger than anything seen in North Korea, bigger even than the failed Taepodong-2. But analysts contacted by Security Clearance said it was difficult to tell if the missile was even real, let alone a threat to the United States.
"It is entirely possible that it is a prop. In fact, when the United States first saw the Taepodong 1 and 2 in the early '90s, they were both mock-ups," said Jeff Lewis at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
"We do not have enough information from the photos to judge whether this missile is real or just a mock-up. If it is truly a new model it appears to be an intermediate-range missile that could travel a few thousand miles, perhaps far enough to hit islands in Alaska's Aleutian Island chain," said Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund.
As for the weapon of propaganda, neither Snyder nor Klingner thinks there's suddenly a flood of information getting into North Korea, but perhaps what used to be a drip is now a steady trickle. And it comes from a variety of sources. "For example, there are now a million cell phones in North Korea, though few of them can contact the outside world. But through a number of means, more information is getting in and out," Klingner said.
In spite of the spread of 21st century technology, Snyder said he believes it's an ancient form of information sharing that matters most. "The dominant way that information comes in is by word of mouth, that essentially means somebody coming in from China telling rumors of the latest news probably at the marketplace."
The United States does have a Korean language version of Radio Free Asia that it uses to try to get accurate information inside the nation, but that's not very effective when the electricity for most citizens works only two hours a day.
The regime has a very effective way of blunting the impact of any outside information. "The strategy for political control is to try to keep you tired and keep you busy," Snyder said. "Most people, they have to work so hard in order to survive they don't have time to think about politics in a meaningful way."