Rocket failure may prompt new talks
North Korea's latest rocket launch maintains a pattern of provocation and bad-faith bargaining established under its late leader Kim Jong-il, despite hopes that his son Kim Jong-un's taking power four months ago might break it. It has sparked the usual international condemnation for violating a United Nations Security Council ban on rocket and nuclear tests, the suspension of US food aid and an urgent meeting of the Security Council. And as usual, more sanctions and isolation of the regime are unlikely to make any difference. Persuasion and dialogue remain the best hope for making the reclusive state see reason.
The failure of the launch not long into the rocket's flight has rained on North Korea's own parade. Though seen by the US and its allies as nothing more than a test of a missile that one day might be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, it was supposed to deliver a satellite into orbit to mark the centenary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung. Failure amounts to a major loss of face for his grandson, the third generation of the Kim dynasty, just two days after he was elevated to the key position of first secretary of the Workers Party of Korea as he assumes the posts and titles held by his father. North Korea places great emphasis on ceremony and symbolic gestures.
There is something else, however, that sets this occasion apart. When previous launchings in 1998 and 2009 failed to put satellites into orbit, state media saved face with a news blackout followed by claims of success. North Korea has not previously publicly acknowledged a long-range missile or satellite failure. This time state television interrupted normal programmes to announce the setback within hours. To be sure, it was a terse statement that the satellite had not entered its preset orbit and that scientists and technicians were looking into the cause. Hopefully such openness is a sign of change. But it could belie some technological progress. Setbacks, after all, are unexceptional in rocket development, although 14 years of them suggest North Korea has some way to go. Alternatively, if it is preparing for its third nuclear test, as suggested by satellite photographs, openness about the failed launch could mask quiet confidence about its nuclear programme.
China, North Korea's sole major ally, has rightly urged calm and restraint all round amid strong international condemnation of the launch. It would have been a project inherited by the young Kim Jong-un, who is clearly still consolidating his position with key party figures and the military. Now that it has been completed, though it ended in failure, it is to be hoped this will serve to push Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks brokered by China to end its nuclear programme. That is where reason and the need of North Korean people for humanitarian aid are most likely to prevail.