After the embarrassment of a controversial North Korean rocket launch ending in explosion on Friday morning, observers are now left to wonder what Pyongyang might do next.
The Unha-3 (Galaxy) rocket was meant to be a grand reminder of the 100th anniversary of the April 15 birth of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder. It was also a public assertion of the standing of North Korea’s current ruler, Kim Jong Un.
Beyond the usual erratic behavior and secrecy of the North, there are concerns about the stability of a regime led by Kim Jong Un, a man thought to be in his late-20s who was thrust into the position after the death of his father last December.
That the launch ended so disastrously – bursting into pieces in two minutes or less after take-off at about 7:39 a.m., according to the South Korea’s defense ministry – raises the question of whether North Korea will now up the stakes. The government had invited a contingent of Western TV and wire service journalists to report the achievement only to have to acknowledge, via an official news service, that “the earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit.”
North Korea claimed the rocket was a peaceful endeavor meant to launch a satellite, but it was widely seen as a test of intercontinental ballistic missile development, which would violate a United Nations ban on the North’s use of such technology.
A South Korean intelligence report was widely quoted earlier this week as saying that the North appeared to be readying for its third nuclear test. Satellite images of an area where tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009 showed a new tunnel being dug, according to the Associated Press.
"Frankly, I believe that they are going to have a nuclear test anyway," Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul's Kookmin University and noted expert on North Korea, said in an e-mail. "But yes, the failure of the test increases such probability."
That course of action would not be well received in South Korea, where tensions skyrocketed in 2010 after the North was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship that March, killing 46 sailors. When the North shelled a South Korean island eight months later, killing four people, hardliners in Seoul called for retaliation.
Not everyone is convinced, though, that Pyongyang will push ahead anytime soon with a nuclear test or further provocations.
While there is sure to be frustration about the rocket’s failure, the act of the launch itself might have been sufficient to demonstrate the “strong willingness” of Kim Jong Un, said Su Hao, a scholar at the China Foreign Affairs University, which is affiliated with the nation's Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Asked what he meant by “willingness,” Su replied: “to do whatever he wants to do, including violating the wishes of the international community.”
The North Koreans had just this February agreed to halt long-range missile and nuclear tests. The United States in turn announced that it would provide the North with 240,000 tons of food aid, an agreement that now appears in jeopardy.
“The underlying issue with North Korea is their deep sense of insecurity and chronic need for recognition. Sometimes this manifests as provocation and brinksmanship,” John Delury, assistant professor of East Asian studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said in an e-mail exchange. “Other times, as with this satellite launch and Kim Il Sung centenary celebrations, we see a paradoxical, almost tragic, sight of a country that can't feed it's people trying desperately to demonstrate hi-tech greatness by launching a satellite.”
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Tom on Twitter