For North Korea’s inexperienced young leader, Kim Jong Un, the largely successful launching of a long-range rocket could not have come too soon.
Analysts say the launching on Wednesday was sure to bolster Kim’s grip on power after months of political purges meant to tame the elite class and hints of dissatisfaction among his hungry people. It was also expected to serve as an antidote to a humiliating failure early in his rule: a rocket test in April that fizzled before an international audience.
In the insular world of North Korea, the country’s ability to send a rocket hurtling hundreds of miles on roughly the course it set is a fulfillment of promises that have kept people loyal to the Kim dynasty for decades.
Under that mythology, the launching was a sign that the so-called arduous march – soldiering on despite isolation and sanctions – was paying off, building a nuclear deterrent that would keep imperialist powers at bay.
Another promise – becoming increasingly important to the people, yet harder for the government to deliver on in the face of sanctions – is to resolve economic mismanagement that has kept North Koreans in chronic hunger.
Still, the success of the rocket was critical, analysts say, to Kim’s continuing attempts to strengthen his grip on the country’s powerful military, a process that in recent months has led to the dismissals of top generals loyal to his father and the elevation of new officers.
“It helps Kim Jong Un solidify internal unity,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Ever since Kim took over after the death last December of his father, the longtime North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, he has been trying to show himself to be a worthy successor to his father and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the North Korean founder.
He badly needed a propaganda boon this year, when North Korea observes the first anniversary of his father’s death and the centennial of his grandfather’s birth.
On Wednesday, after state television announced the “important news” that the rocket had put the satellite Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3, into orbit, government vehicles blaring the news rolled through the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, according to the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, reported people dancing in the streets.
“Suddenly, the whole country is engulfed with happiness and the people endlessly inspired,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, attributing the success to Kim’s father, whose main legacy was the missile program that his son just advanced, and the country’s nuclear programme.
(The West considers such rocket launchings to be crucial tests of the same technology as that used by intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads.)
“Domestically, the test provides Kim with a much-needed propaganda boost following April’s launch failure and what North Korea watchers believe have been a series of disputes with the military,” said James Hardy, a security expert at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.
An ability to deploy unconventional weapons has long been integral to the North Korean government’s survival strategy, analysts say, not only as a means of creating a sense of empowerment among the impoverished masses, but also for catering to the elite.
Without the revenues from selling such technology abroad or the aid and investment packages North Korea’s neighbors often provide to appease it, the government can hardly afford resources to buy privileges for the military, the secret police and top party members whose loyalty is the linchpin in maintaining totalitarian control.
Recently, Kim was believed to have given out special cash cards containing foreign currency to party, military and state elites, Park Hyong-joong, an analyst, said in a recent report posted on the website of the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
Kim also opened a series of high-rise apartments, supermarkets and amusement parks in Pyongyang, where most of the elites and their families live.
The rocket achievement was timed well for Kim’s attempts to bolster his credibility among the North’s hard-line military, which forms the backbone of his political control.
For months, Kim has been testing the loyalty of top generals by dismissing or demoting them and letting them try to win his favour again, according to South Korean officials and analysts. Meanwhile, they said, he has been putting his stamp on the military leadership by elevating a new lineup of officers who will owe their promotions to him.
These new elites – many of them reportedly also close to Kim’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hee, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek – have been depriving the old elites of lucrative rights, including the ability to trade in commodities, Park said.
Such abrupt changes have created “losers and discontent” and resulted in “indications of domestic instability,” according to a senior South Korean government official who spoke during a background briefing last week.
The launching, the analysts say, will help Kim tame such discontent by bolstering the military’s morale.
“With this first major achievement as new leader, Kim Jong Un can boost his legitimacy as a hereditary successor and consolidate the loyalty of the elite,” said Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “It helps subdue the friction and tension between the old and new elites in the military and solidify its unity.”