North Korea’s defiant rocket flight ended ignominiously in the Yellow Sea and created the usual splash of international denunciations.
“It’s really deplorable,” Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said. “We condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” although, he added, “we’re pleased that it wasn’t a technological success.”
Pyongyang’s latest aborted effort to loft a satellite into orbit – roughly the same rocket science could deliver a nuclear warhead to a target half a world away – was the faint silver lining to the latest international gloom over decades of failure to scare, sanction, threaten, entreat or bribe the repressive neo-Stalinist regime into forsaking nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
The other dramatic change was Pyongyang’s surprisingly quick and frank admission of the 81-second flight that ended as fiery debris in the Yellow Sea. “Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure,” Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency admitted.
The era of the Big Lie may finally have ended in North Korea, decades after most totalitarian regimes realized that even a brutally repressed people can’t be kept collectively ignorant. With the untested twentysomething Kim Jong-un at the helm, the boastfully proclaimed rocket test was regarded as a chance for the new leader to assert his grip on the regime while pointedly defying the threats and entreaties of foreign powers.
But a calculated blaze of publicity – including taking busloads of foreign journalists to see the gleaming white rocket poised on its launch pad – made it impossible to fake the outcome.
Three years ago – after another multistage rocket failed – North Koreans were nevertheless told the satellite had successfully reached orbit and was broadcasting “immortal revolutionary songs” celebrating then-leader Kim Jong-il and the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung as it circled the planet every 104 minutes.
“This failure makes it even more likely that the North will now attempt a nuclear test in the not-too-distant future,” Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank said. “The rocket launch was supposed to demonstrate the regime’s power and technical prowess. A nuclear test may now be seen as even more necessary, not just to further perfect their weapons capability, but also to save face.”
Meanwhile, the world’s biggest powers had clearly run out of options or interest in imposing new punishments on Pyongyang.
“Members of the Security Council deplored this launch which is in violation of Security Council resolutions,” said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to United Nations, who currently holds the council’s rotating presidency. But the lack of even a formal statement, let alone any hint of further binding resolutions, underscored the lack of unity on further coercive efforts.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after meeting with his Chinese and Indian counterparts, made it explicitly clear: “We regret the rocket launch … but we do not believe in new sanctions – they will not help in any way to resolve the situation,” he said.
North Korea’s success in covertly building nuclear weapons, coupled with its persistent, if failure-marred, intercontinental-missile program, also looms over talks in Istanbul where the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, hosted by Turkey, opened talks Friday with Iran over its controversial nuclear program.
Mr. Baird called the talks with Iran a “positive development” compared with North Korea’s ongoing defiance despite “the toughest sanctions in the world.” (He predicted tough negotiations with Tehran’s ruling Islamic theocracy but added “there is still a way out of this” that avoids confrontation.”)
Previous U.S. presidents had also threatened – just as President Barack Obama has with respect to Iran – to resort to military force if necessary to prevent Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear weapons. North Korea wasn’t cowed.
The Obama administration had threatened to withdraw food aid promised North Korea – where millions live on the verge of starvation – if Pyongyang went ahead with the rocket launch, which many saw as a thinly disguised test of a ballistic missile capable of lofting a nuclear warhead.
“North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry,” the White House said.
But the rocket’s failure may give both Pyongyang and Washington a little wiggle room.