Coming on the heels of a failed launch last April, and just before the one year anniversary of his father’s death, analysts say North Korea’s young new leader is more interested in sending a message to his impoverished nation than he is with any potential international consequences that could follow.
“I think this is very important to Kim Jong-un to build political legitimacy and bolster the spirits of his people,” James Schoff, a North Korea specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN. “He is doing this despite the fact that he knows he is going to come into a lot of criticism in the region for it.”
Wednesday’s launch took many by surprise, considering an extension announced earlier this week to address apparent complications with the rocket could have pushed back an attempt to send it up until the end of the month.
The United States and other governments fear the tests serve as an undercover guise to enhance North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
A U.S. official said the American military and intelligence picked up the launch immediately and were analyzing the data.
The United Nations Security Council has issued multiple sanctions against the North Korean government in an effort to get it to cease work on the program.
The United States, this week, called on North Korea to refrain from a launch, which it said would violate its international obligations.
Longtime North Korea watchers said the leadership succession process is now complete with Kim Jong-un viewed as the formalized leader of North Korea.
But the launch came during the more crucial power consolidation process where the new leader has purged senior military officers favored by his father’s regime in an effort to re-balance the leadership toward the governing Workers Party.
This launch was viewed by some analysts as providing an opportunity that could help Kim Jong-un in his push for that consolidation of power.
“If Kim Jong-un pulls off a successful long range missile test, its a very important signal saying that yes I, Kim Jong-un have replaced the powerful generals,” John Park, a Stanton Junior Faculty Fellow at MIT told CNN. “It shows that I have found the right balance and I am now in charge.”
More importantly for Kim, a successful launch would further cement his leadership status in the eyes of the North Korean elite.
“It’s more of him now establishing his credentials and his legitimacy outside of the shadow of his father,” Park says.
And with leadership transitions already underway or soon to occur in neighboring South Korea, Japan and China, the leadership in Pyongyang may be betting that those governments will not want to spend too much time focusing on North Korea policy beyond the usual condemnations of such launches before they all take power.
Traditionally, these types of launches were more an act of brinksmanship on the part of the North Korean regime in order to get the attention of the United States as an effort to engage in a new round of negotiations.
In April, North Korea invited media from around the world into the notoriously secretive country to report on that launch. Even more unique was the admission of the rocket’s failure by the new leadership.
And because of that, the stakes for Kim Jong-un and a more successful launch were much higher this time.