Response to failure tests North Korea's new leader
North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-Un (R) leads a mass rally for his late father and grandfather following the country's failed rocket launch.
April 13th, 2012
04:59 PM ET

Response to failure tests North Korea's new leader

By Jamie Crawford

When it comes to North Korea, nothing is ever clear. You can double down on that bet when it comes to trying to foresee what the catastrophic failure of its rocket launch means for the country's new ruler and his military.

North Korea experts say how Kim Jong Un reacts to this humiliating setback, however, could be an open window into the strength of his hold on leadership.

"The question is whether (the launch) is going to be consequential, and I think that remains to be seen," said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.

If history is any guide, North Korea is likely to follow up the rocket launch with a nuclear test, or some other sort of provocative act as a signal to the world of its strength and resolve. The question is whether the rocket failure causes the regime to change course.

"One thing that might be significant would be if, in fact, they decide to move in a different direction from a (nuclear test) based on this experience," Snyder said. But he added that in his view this is not a likely course for the North to take.

Still, if a nuclear test, North Korea's third, does follow in the coming weeks, much will be riding on its success or failure, and with it quite possibly the political fortunes of Kim.

"If the third nuclear test is a failure, then you are talking about essentially zero for two in terms of high-profile demonstrations of North Korea's might under Kim Jong Un's watch," John Park, a North Korea specialist at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, told CNN. "The stakes couldn't be higher."

North Korea's admission of the rocket's failure on state television stood in stark contrast to what was expected, and caught many analysts by surprise. The fact that the government officially announced the failure of the launch was a huge departure from its past patterns.

When attempts to put a satellite in orbit failed in 1998 and 2009, government media told the North Korean people that the launches were successful, and even that the satellites were sending signals to the "dear leader" from space.

Some have surmised the government simply had no choice but to acknowledge failure with the large presence of foreign journalists in the country to cover the launch. Several U.S. officials who spoke with CNN said the announcement also could have been an attempt to project the new leader's confidence, or even an effort to use the failure to cast blame on certain military officials, with the goal of getting rid of them and consolidating Kim's power base.

Whatever the motivation, those who follow the situation closely say there are likely to be senior figures in the military who are quite angry such a public statement was transmitted domestically and internationally.

Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, had a tougher transition period when he rose to power, because his ascension to the leadership in 1994 was accompanied by a widespread famine. In comparison, analysts say, the rocket failure is unlikely to put the new leader in any sort of immediate jeopardy.

But the decision to allow such a large foreign media presence into the country to visit the launch site, even if the intent was to trumpet the centenary celebration the nation's founding father, raises questions among some regarding Kim Jong Un's managerial acumen.

"If you put on the glasses of evaluation of his management up to now," Park said, "this raises serious managerial questions in terms of the lead-up to this. ... Inviting international journalists to what is really a secret site and having that type of exposure is a little bizarre, I think."

And the United States seemed to relish the publicity associated with the launch. "Their efforts to draw attention to the program seem to have backfired in this case," a U.S. official told CNN after the launch.

But the Pentagon was quick to make clear the absence of any U.S. role in the rocket's failure.

"The United States military had absolutely no role whatsoever in bringing down the missile," Pentagon spokesman George Little said. "I'm unaware of any U.S. role whatsoever in bringing down the missile."

What specifically caused the rocket to fail just 81 seconds into its flight is nothing more than speculation at this point, but the program continues even though it faces some of the same growing pains the United States confronted in the early days of its space program.

"The U.S. had an extreme number of failures in the 1960s, while the Soviet juggernaut seemed to be flawless in its ability to put satellites and humans into space," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

For Klingner, the parallels between the U.S. and North Korean programs are proof of the dangers of complacency when it comes to North Korea.

"It'll be a failed program until the moment it succeeds, and then I think we'll have a lot of people saying, 'Why wasn't I informed of this unforeseen missile threat to the United States,'" he said. "And it's been a long time coming."

CNN's Larry Shaughnessy, Elise Labott and Pam Benson contributed to this report.

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