Shortly before I was due to fly out of Gimpo Aiport on a perfectly serviceable, relatively inexpensive and wholly successful (notwithstanding some fairly unfriendly service) China Southern Airlines jet plane on the morning of the 13th, the North Korean regime finally pinged its much vaunted, long awaited and reportedly rather more expensive ‘Unha-3’ rocket into the sky. But, as we all know, it wasn’t up there for long; indeed, back-of-an-envelope calculations suggest that my antiquated Boeing flying machine was in the sky for approximately 110 times longer than the mysterious projectile let loose from Cheolsan County in North Pyongan Province at 7:39AM. It also came down in both the location and manner intended.
However, neither the China Southern success story nor the North Korean failure was the interesting point. The interesting point was that the North actually admitted to the failure on Chosun Central TV just four hours after it happened. Naturally, the question was and remains, “Why?”
The truth is probably simple, as the truth often is. In essence, the authorities were forced to quickly conclude that they couldn’t keep such a thing under wraps forever.
Born of watching Pyongyang’s approach to World Cup qualifying matches over a number of tournament cycles, my hypothesis is that the authorities had assumed (wrongly) that they would be able to manage the launch by recording it and then showing it off to reporters as and when it had been confirmed as a success (a fair presumption being that this would be the case, since the last time a similar stunt was tried the rocket went a very, very long way indeed).
This plan, had it been implemented, would have been in contrast to that of 2010, when the North went into the World Cup in South Africa with unreasonably high hopes after stunning Asia with an exceptional qualifying round performance, and the authorities therefore decided that the finals would be broadcast live to the folks back home. Only losing by a single goal to Brazil in the North’s opening match exacerbated this illusory trend, but that then made losing 7-1 to Portugal a few days later come as a very nasty shock indeed. The takeaway? One must be vigilant for errors born of chance. Micromanage: record, record, record.
However, this cautious initial plan was impossible for two reasons. First, with so many international journalists, tourists and pin-badged Friendship Association riff-raff loitering around the place, the likelihood of the Pyongyang citizenry finding out about the failure for themselves was deemed to be extremely high, meaning that the regime felt it would be better off revealing the "failure to enter orbit" for itself; and second, with so many people (a) able to hear the news from South Korean radio stations in places like Kaesong and (b) receiving it in the process of doing cross-border business in China, the chances of the truth leaking into society via those routes was considered similarly great, meaning that the traditional twin options of either claiming success or simply saying nothing were out of reach.
Thus the North was, for almost the first time in history, forced to admit to failure.
In the light of that fact, one question stands out: could it be that if the international media, notably Associated Press but also ITAR-TASS and Xinhua, were to “man up” and do the job journalists should be doing in deeply inhospitable environs (rather than the opposite, which KCNA already does to great effect) and if the South Korean government could simultaneously be persuaded to permit a broad range of radio broadcasters to utilize domestic FM frequencies to broadcast (informative, rather than openly propagandist) news and current affairs information into North Korea on a daily basis, at cheaper rates and with greater clarity than current circumstances allow, then we would have the capacity to hold the government of Kim Jong Eun to higher standards of honesty going forward than has ever been the case before?
You may scoff and say that nothing has changed. But there's only one way to find out.