Smarting from a failed rocket launch, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has little choice, but to stick to his father’s playbook of milking an impoverished country to develop weapons and blackmail the international community for aid and recognition.
Far from fearing a coup or instability after Friday’s public fiasco, the third of his line to rule North Korea led celebrations yesterday to mark the centenary of the birth of his grandfather, the founder of the world’s only Stalinist monarchy, “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung.
The state that Kim Jong-un inherited in December last year after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, boasts a 1.2 million-strong military, wants to possess a nuclear weapon and to develop the ability to hit the US with it — the aim, critics say, of the failed rocket launch.
Behind those ambitions are 23 million people, many malnourished, in an economy whose output is worth just US$40 billion annually in purchasing power parity terms, according to the US CIA, compared with South Korea’s US$1.5 trillion economy.
The puny size of the economy means development is not the answer, tying Kim Jong-un into the “military first” policies of his late father.
“For Kim Jong-un, opening North Korea means the end of a system that his grandfather and father fostered,” said Virginie Grzelczyk, a North Korea expert at Nottingham Trent University in Britain.
“Kim Jong-un is unlikely to be losing power over the launch, as the elite and the military need his legitimizing and mythical presence in order to pacify the North Korean population,” she said.
The small scale of the economy is matched by North Korea’s limited diplomatic clout. It has few friends other than China, whose strategic interest is in keeping a buffer between it and South Korea, which has US military bases.
Without real weight in the international arena, Pyongyang is forced to rely on periodic rocket launches, nuclear tests and attacks on South Korea, such as the one in 2010 when it shelled an island, to remind the world of its existence, analysts say.
That is likely to mean sticking to the same script as in 2009, when North Korea followed a failed attempt to put a satellite into orbit with a nuclear test.
Intelligence satellite images showing a tunnel being dug at the site of two previous tests imply that it either wishes to remind the world of the possibility, so as to prompt a return to aid for disarmament talks, or it is actually preparing for one.
“Internationally, now they have to do a nuclear test, preferably using uranium, just in order to show that they should be taken seriously,” said Andre Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kookmin University.
Pyongyang did depart from its previous practice when it publicly admitted on state television that the Unha-3 rocket had failed to deliver its weather satellite into orbit in time for Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
However, to read into the announcement signs of new openness is to overstate the issue, most commentators on North Korea say. The presence of so many foreign journalists and the spread of cellphones, of which there are now more than a million, made it too risky.
“For all its habitual lying, the propaganda apparatus shies away from lies it can too easily be caught out on,” said Brian Myers, a North Korea expert at Dongseo University in South Korea.