Reading the ruler and other signs from North Korea
April 17th, 2012
02:09 AM ET

Reading the ruler and other signs from North Korea

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."

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Filed under: Kim Jong-un • North Korea
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    December 9, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  2. CSX

    He is a kid, nothing to read. Read the regime's history, now you know.

    April 18, 2012 at 7:57 am | Reply
  3. gdaym8

    The last paragraph in this article: "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."

    MY, MY, MY!!!! Doesn't THIS sound familiar. Reminds me of ANOTHER country I'm familiar with!!!

    April 17, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  4. M Houston

    North Korea is a basket case of human misery, made so by Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's Communist China.
    The mess that is North Korea is China's responsibility to clean up. I suspect that China likes the mess just the
    way it is: a thorn in the side of the UN, and a source of anxiety for the "West".

    April 17, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  5. TOMG

    THE SUN SOLAR POWERFUL AND THE MOON LUNAR POWERFUL WILL TEACH THIS HUMAN WASTE SHIT AND HUMAN URINE HELL WAY OF THINKING WORLD , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
    • Menos

      At first I thought you were the most ignorant human on the planet. But then it hit me - you're an incredibly intelligent chimp with an anti-human chip on your shoulder. Your obsession with waste products gave you away. I bet your making a little pretend monkey friend out of your dung right now. Bad Ape! Off the keyboard and back to your cage.

      April 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  6. TOMG

    MORE POWERFUL EARTHQUAKE 13.O AND HIGHER ARE COMING TO THE HUMAN WASTE SHIT AND HUMAN URINE WORLD , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  7. TOMG

    DOG WORLD WILL ALWAYS BE DOG WORLD , BECAUSE ALL THE HUMAN WASTE SHIT AND HUMAN URINE ARE AROUND THIS HELL WORLD FOR MORE THAN FIVE BILLIONS YEARS ALREADY , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • Joe M.

      But then it becomes fertilizer and flowers grow and food grows. :o)

      April 18, 2012 at 12:01 am | Reply
    • Mahirul

      I don't believe we have to worry here in the stteas. The range of the weapons doesn't quite make it, from what I have read. However, if I were near them, I would certainly be worried

      May 21, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
  8. TOMG

    ALL KARMA CAME FROM THE HUMAN WASTE SHIT MIND AND THE HUMAN URNIE MIND , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  9. TOMG

    WE ALL CAN HOLD ON THE NUCLEAR BOMB AND DIGEST INTO OUR HELL STOMACH , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  10. TOMG

    THIS FAT KID FROM THE NORTH KOREA DO NOT LAST LONG , HE WILL HAVE HIS HEART ATTACK COMING SOON TO HIS FATNESS FROM HIS EAT AND SLEEP FORMULAR OF FAT THEORY , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
    • Rinnie

      Seriously...what the hell is wrong with you?

      April 17, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  11. TOMG

    LIFE AND TRAGIC LIFE ARE THE HUMAN WASTE SHIT AND URINE MIND TO HELPING IT KARMA TO GETTING THERE , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  12. TOMG

    EVERYBODY LOVE TO EAT FOOD AND THAN THE HUMAN FLASH IS PASSING AWAY IT WILL TURNING INTO THE MOST STINKY AND SMELL OF ALL HUMAN WASTE SHIT AND HUMAN URINE , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  13. TOMG

    KARMA ARE REAL , AND KARMA IS FOR REAL ON THIS DOG CIVILIZATION ERA WORLD NOW DAILY , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Reply
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    LIFE FORM ARE THE KARMA OF ONESELF HUMAN WASTE SHIT AND HUMAN URINE THINKING AND ALL THE TTHOUGHT TO HELPING IT KARMA TO COME TRUE , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  15. TOMG

    WE WILL NEVER LEARN UNLESS THE KARMA ARE COME INTO OUR HUMAN WASTE SHIT MIND AND HUMAN URINE MIND THAT ARE FULL OF KARMA LIFE HELL FORM ARE HERE ON THIS EARTH PLANET , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  16. TOMG

    WE ALL AIN'T LEARN THE HUMAN WASTE SHIT AND HUMAN URINE FROM THEM YET , AMEN

    April 17, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  17. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    What did we learn from NK? Absolutely nothing because a simple missile launch doesn't really tell us anything about the young leader and how much he is willing to work with the West! Unfortunately the West is jumping to conclusion, cutting off food aid and labeling the young leader as being a threat to the region even before they allow him to get his agenda set and begin dialogue with his neighbors and the West! The man has been in office for a few monts and already we are cutting off food aid because of a launch that was planned perhaps years before his father died! Let's face it, there's a whole lot more to be learned about NK under the young leader and it would be premature to judge his character and measure his intentions because of a simple missle launch!

    April 17, 2012 at 11:57 am | Reply
    • Alan S

      Blah blah: The alternative is to shrug as he ignores U.N. instructions, tests ICBM's, and continues work on nuclear weapons, all the while benefitting from us feeding his people for him. Doesn't sound like a good alternative.

      The new Mr. Kim inherits the legacy - a legacy he proudly celebrates - of his father and grandfather. If he wants respect and forebearance from South Korea, from Japan, from the West, he should do something, give some signal, that he is willing to change.

      April 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • brett

      he launched an ICBM test before he was sworn in as the "official" leader. why would the west think any different of him than his relatives? and we should be using that food aid to feed our citizens, not the north koreans. you are obviously un-educated

      April 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  18. Mike

    Too be honest I'd be surpised if DRPK has any sort of weaponized nuclear device yet. Sure they successfully completed a small scale, nuclear exposion in a controlled environment. I doubt they have a bomber or artillery deploy-able nukes yet, let alone ICBM or MRBM.

    I would be surprised if more than 5 Chinese ICMBS hit north America in a full scale nuclear confrontation, to be honest.

    I think we give the whole region too much credit.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:22 am | Reply
    • Alan S

      Mike: Assuming you are correct - even five nukes hitting the U.S. would be horrific beyond imagination. Seattle, San Francisco/Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, maybe a second strike on L.A. - think of the casualties. Three or four million dead. The U.S. economy shattered for decades. The California agricultural industry ruined, also for decades. Millions homeless, millions injured.

      April 17, 2012 at 11:55 am | Reply
      • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

        Stupid fear mongering! You people watch too many cartoons! I see the duck and cover cold war syndrome is still affecting you guys! Speaking of cartoons, do you know Jung Un's father was a big fan of Daffy Duck? Really true! I heard about it on Sixty Minutes a few years ago! See, even dictators have things in common with the West! And If Jung Un likes Sponge Bob, then he couldn't be that bad after all!

        April 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
      • Choad

        Explaining the obvious to the oblivious is always fun.

        April 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  19. Matthew

    For some reason when I think of North Korea, I think of the Hunger Games with the Communist being the Capitol and oppressive the people around and keeping them in the dark.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:10 am | Reply
  20. Kareful-Kay

    He's a super freak, super freak, yea, he's super freaky!

    April 17, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
  21. Loki

    .... why is it the comment thing works on this article, but not any of the others?

    April 17, 2012 at 10:08 am | Reply
  22. palintwit

    Not to worry everyone. Sarah Palin is on her way to N. Korea at this very moment to meet with Kim Jong Un. She is bringing him mooseburgers and a large platter of s'mores. If anybody knows how to break the ice, it's Sarah Palin. He will soon be putty in her hands.

    April 17, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • Boo

      Look at that fat kid....Palin better watch it...he may decide to make a meal out of her....

      April 17, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply
      • Snoot

        He's still too small to shop at an American Walmart.

        April 17, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  23. mark

    I find it funny, how they couldn't give credit for the regime being honest to its people. Rather this reporter put his own opinion, very unjournalistic like, on why he thinks they told the public. When I did journalism, and its been about 20 years now, we just reported what happened, not put our own opinions on why.

    I'm glad that N. Korea's leader is being honest to his people. Maybe American leaders should do the same. Be more honest.

    April 17, 2012 at 8:27 am | Reply
    • JuneCleaversBeaver

      From your grammar and sentence structure I can see why you don't "do journalism" anymore.

      April 17, 2012 at 8:43 am | Reply
    • Boo

      You're kidding, right?

      April 17, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply
    • Erik

      You should probably move to N Korea if you like the leadership better than ours. Have a fun trip!

      April 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  24. OOPs

    this thing did what it had to do and fail in flight.
    however that truly does not mean much if there was a self destruct button in this ICBM , and its my guess there was as it would cause a major event had it headed into china or south korea or many other nations. someone made the call to the ICBM that took it out.
    this missile game is very addictive to those in that game , and this kid could not be allowed to focus on something that would bring to much attention to the region, and that is most likely china's view to.
    there was a very smart idiot by the name of jerry { gerald } that was builing a super gun for saddam in iraq and he was told to stay away by some and not to return to iraq, but the addiction of the game was so strong that he did not understand what stay away meant and he recieved the result for being an idiot.
    china may be a lot of things but they are not idiots, this missile game of north korea is not in the best interest of anyone, and so there will be many obstacles that faces north korea in this venture. the stability of the region is very much in the interest of all.

    April 17, 2012 at 7:52 am | Reply

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