North Korea Launches Something Surprising: The Truth?

North Korea failed to launch it’s missile (no, really it was a satellite) today but in light of how the foreign media was allowed to cover the event, and North Korea’s quick admission of failure, it may be possible that this was the launch of a new and more transparent hermit kingdom.

Does the missile launch actually signal the beginning of a more open DPRK? North Korea Expert Professor Shigemura weighs in on the meaning of the missile that just wasn’t good enough.

The U.S. detected and tracked the launch of a North Korean “missile” at 6:39 p.m. EDT on the 12th (*the 13th in Japan).

The missile was tracked over the Yellow Sea, according to a statement issued from the American side, and fell into the Yellow Sea 102.5 miles west of Seoul, the statement said. No debris was found.

The launch was not a surprise. On March 16th, a Korean spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology announced North Korea would launch a long-range rocket after April 12th.

He said the rocket would carry a North Korean-made polar-orbiting observation satellite to mark the 100th birthday of the founder of the nation, later President Kim Il Sung on April 15.

Professor Tomomitsu Shigemura, a Japanese expert on North Korean issues, who also teaches International Relations at Waseda University in Tokyo gave an urgent press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan today (April 13th). Here are the main points of the press conference in the hope that it will help understand the mysterious world of North Korea a little better.

Professor Tomomitsu Shigemura explains the mysteries of North Korea and the meaning of the missile launch that failed.

There are three reasons for the escalation of the issue of the North Korean rocket launch, according to Shigemura. North Korea follows three main Confucian principles, which are the ideas of “legitimacy” in the eyes of its people, “justification of their actions”, and at last, the idea of being able to “save face.”

According to Professsor Shigemura, the new young leader, Mr. Kim Jong Un lacks the legitimacy as a leader of the nation, although he has some legitimacy in the sense that he has the same blood as the former leader Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un has no achievements on record as the head of the government. “Because he wanted to be able to get this legitimacy, it was very crucial that he was being able to have a successful launch of the satellite,” Professor Shigemura said.

He added that because the purported greatest principle of the country is to never bend to a foreign power, “the repeated condemnations by the US, South Korea and Japan to stop the launch actually increased the importance of its value.” The more such pressure and criticism has been applied to North Korea in the past, the more strongly the North Korean leaders answered by demonstrating that they were capable of taking action despite foreign intervention.

The launch ended in a failure and a severe loss of face for the new leader, Kim Jong Un. It brought up issues of the legitimacy of “his capacity to rule, his ability to fight for a noble cause, and it discredited the faith of the people in the leader,” he explained.

Under normal circumstances, “the North Korean leadership would handle this problem by domestically announcing that the launch had been obstructed by the US and South Korea,” he said.

This time however North Korea has not made anyone a scapegoat…yet. Shigemura predicts that the North Korean leadership will probably explain that there “was a problem after the launch, and in order not to create inconvenience for other nations, they made their own decision to go ahead and explode the rocket on their own initiative.” The North Korean leadership could then brag that they had such tremendous technology that they can destroy their own rocket. (Twisted logic but not if you live in North Korea.)

What Shigemura and others North Korean experts found surprising about the recent turn of events is this time, the North Korean government responded quickly to the situation. They admitted the failure rapidly and unequivocally.

In some senses, the admission is a tacit recognition that the spread of information technology has made the world less secret. Shigemura notes, “The new reality is that in Pyongyang, there are many Chinese businessmen and tourists coming by tens of thousands, and they generally all carry cellphones so that they can communicate with their people back in China. As a result, information floods into the North Korean nation. People can’t be so easily kept in the dark.”

As a result of this failure, the fear for the leadership is that the North Korean people might lose faith in their leadership. Therefore, he predicts the ruling elite will try to find someone to put the blame on—either inside or outside the nation. He indicated that there would be some suspicion of sabotage, that someone was deliberately working against the new leader and was trying to prevent his success and the official North Korean media may spin it this way.

According to many experts, the former leader Kim Jong Il never really gave interviews to the foreign media. “He basically hated journalists from Japan, and of the US. He would not let them into the country.’

If sometimes media were able to step into the country, it was not as working press members, but they were able to step in under a tourist visa or would pretend to be visiting the country for a business meeting. Therefore, before Kim Jong Il died, according to the professor, the foreign press was never officially invited to visit North Korea for a rocket launch.

“This is the first time that foreign media have been officially invited to cover such an event,” Professor Shigemura explained. “In countries such as North Korea, it is not normal for the successor to go against the wishes of the former leader. The fact that the current ruling elite did so shows that there is something different now in North Korea.”

Jake Adelstein also contributed to this article. 

Additional Information:

Mr. Martyn Williams, an expert in science and technology and especially issues and technology concerning North Korea, contributed to this article adding some back ground information to help us and our readers to understand North Korea better.

He said that it was “indeed the first time that the foreign media have been invited to a satellite launch.” However, “journalists have been in the country in an official capacity numerous times.”

Martyn Williams also added that “ITAR-TASS, Xinhua and CCTV have had reporters in Pyongyang for years, APTN has been there for several years and AP opened a bureau this year (negotiated while Kim Jong Il was still alive).”

When Martyn Williams was himself invited with a group of about 20 foreign reporters to cover the 2002 Arirang Mass Games, “many reporters have been back for similar events and journalists were all present last year when Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il stood together in Kim Il Sung square for the first time,” he wrote.

Martyn Williams wrote that at the time he was officially in North Korea, himself and his fellow reporters “were told not to venture beyond the area in front of the hotel.” He said that that this instruction did not stop some of them, and that himself has “wandered through Pyongyang for about 45 minutes one evening before being stopped and sent back to my hotel.” The next morning he tried the same thing and only got about 10 minutes away.

He also added that there have been some changes in the last couple of years in North Korea: “The October 2010 military parade was exceptional because foreign TV crews were allowed to broadcast live and the Internet was introduced to Pyongyang, but that was all under Kim Jong Il.”

According to him, there is not much different in terms of media access in North Korea, compared to the situation under Kim Jong Il’s ruling.

Martyn Williams confirmed however that Kim Jong Il has never done a media interview and it’s almost unthinkable that he would. Kim Jong Un, the new leader, is also unlikely of doing one either, according to Martyn Williams: “Both would have faced a barrage of uncomfortable questions and not really been able to defend themselves.” Martyn Williams website here.

Comments
7 Responses to “North Korea Launches Something Surprising: The Truth?”
  1. Hi Jake,

    I think Shigemura is wrong about journalists visiting North Korea. While this might be the first time they’ve been “invited to a satellite launch,” journalists have been in the country in an official capacity numerous times.

    I was part of a group of about 20 that went in 2002 to cover the Arirang mass games, many reporters have been back for similar events and journalists were all present last year when Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il stood together in Kim Il Sung square for the first time.

    ITAR-TASS, Xinhua and CCTV have had reporters in Pyongyang for years, APTN has been there for several years and AP opened a bureau this year (negotiated while Kim Jong Il was still alive).

    Martyn

    • Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky says:

      Dear Martyn Williams,

      Thank you for your comment. It is very helpful for me. When you were invited to the Arirang Games, were you allowed to step out of the hotel where you were staying? Is the same kind of media visit as when other nations invite journalists? Is it a possibility that what Shigemura meant is that Kim Jong Il never took a special interview with a foreign media, like a “one to one” interview, like other heads of states do?
      Many thanks.

      Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky

      • We were told not to venture beyond the area in front of the hotel, but that didn’t stop some of us. I wandered through Pyongyang for about 45 minutes one evening before being stopped and sent back to my hotel. The next morning I tried the same thing and only got about 10 minutes away.

        I haven’t heard of any different arrangements for the reporters this time or in general.

        There have been some changes in the last couple of years. The October 2010 military parade was exceptional because foreign TV crews were allowed to broadcast live and the Internet was introduced to Pyongyang (detailed on my blog), but that was all under Kim Jong Il.

        I’m unsure if Professor Shigemura had some more subtle meaning that he didn’t manage to get across, but I don’t see much different in terms of media access.

        Kim Jong Il has never done a media interview and it’s almost unthinkable that he would. I can’t imagine Kim Jong Un doing one either. Both would have faced a barrage of uncomfortable questions and not really been able to defend themselves.

        • Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky says:

          Dear Martyn Williams,
          I will indeed read the section on the “October 2010 military parade in DPRK” on your blog. Many thanks for sharing thoughts.

          Nathalie

        • subcultureist says:

          Martyn,
          Thanks for setting the record straight.
          We’re both new to reporting on North Korea.
          jake

  2. Jan says:

    There’s a comicbook called “Pyongyang A Journey In North Korea” by a French Canadian cartoonist called Guy Delisle that he made after having worked as a production oversee for a French animation studio in the country. I think it’s one of the best looks into North Korea from foreign eyes out there, and would recommend checking it for anyone who’s interested on getting a glimpse on the life inside North Korea.

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