North Korea's successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile hit its target: it bolstered the standing of its young tyrant Kim Jong Un and raised the specter of being able to eventually strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
The pride in the success of the launch -- after several failures -- is a huge boost for Kim Jong Un, 29, who took power one year ago. He has been trying to cement his authority and win the hearts of the people with soft social and economic reforms, like allowing women to wear pants or more small businesses to operate based on profit.
But the rocket launch was on a different scale. A North Korean female announcer in a pink and dark grey national costume excitedly read an announcement of the missile's success and national TV aired interviews with people jumping and cheering on the news.
There had been reservations within and outside of North Korea when Kim Jong Un took power after his father's death on Dec. 17 last year as to whether the young Kim could lead a nuclear state. Looking determined at his first official appearance earlier this year, he had pledged to fulfill the legacy of his father Kim Jong Il to become a "self-sufficient strong nation" with space rocket technology.
The missile is believed to have a range of 6,212 miles, enough distance to reach the west coast of the United States. Its existence, along with a small North Korean nuclear arsenal, is an alarming possibility for many.
North Korea, however, says it was simply putting a satellite in orbit.
"Picking on our launch (and not others) accusing that ours is a long-range missile and a provocative act causing instability comes from seeing us from a hostile point of view," said North Korea's foreign ministry in an official statement. "We do not want this to be overblown into something that none of us intended to be and hope all related nations act with reason and calmness."
But North Korean denials carry little credibility.
This evidence that North Korea has mastered the long-range missile technology does not mean there will be an imminent nuclear threat.
"They haven't figured out how to weaponize a nuclear (bomb) that will fit in a missile, nor do they have accurate guidance at long ranges," said Stephen Ganyard, ABC News consultant and former deputy assistant secretary of state.
Another crucial technology North Korea is yet to achieve is a proper heat shielding required to protect the warhead while re-entering the earth's atmosphere.
"This is a big leap for Pyongyang. They have been a threat with potential capability. But now a new era begins as a threat with possible capability," said Hwee-Rhak Park, professor of political leadership at Kookmin University in Seoul.
There was obvious alarm, however, as the international community condemned the launch, as North Korea is banned from developing nuclear and missile-related technology under U.N. resolutions.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak convened an emergency national security meeting. Japan's envoy to the United Nations called for consultations on the launch within the U.N. Security Council. Russian Foreign Ministry said it "has caused us deep regret," and even China "expressed regret," a significant notch up in condemnation from previous statements on North Korea, its traditional ally.
That international attention, analysts in Seoul say, is exactly what North Korea wanted.
North Korea's Missile Launch Worries the World
"With the presidential elections in the U.S. and South Korea, they have been sidelined for a while. Pyongyang wants a deal at the negotiating table. They are stripped from food and cash. So this launch was carefully calculated. If they rattle Japan by shooting it past over Okinawa and with a range enough to reach the U.S., they knew that success in and of itself is substantial leverage," said Sung-Min Jang, a North Korea specialist with close ties to that country.
North Korea under late-Kim Jong Il took a "military-first" policy putting interest of the military above economics. This year, there were hopes that Kim Jong Un, educated in Switzerland, would carry out a different rational approach. But analysts say Pyongyang is still ruled by communist party elders and Kim Jong Un remains more of a "puppet" and a "symbolic figure."
"He is completely influenced by capitalism growing up playing with Swiss-made, Japanese-made toys. He enjoyed a more lavish life than any other rich South Korean kid. But simply put, he is not a decision maker, yet," said Jang.
If this launch does not generate a new round of negotiations, North Korean military is expected to push on with its nuclear ambitions with an underground nuclear test. It would show that they have the capability to set off a nuclear explosion. They have reportedly conducted plant-processed plutonium-based tests twice, both just months after missile launches in 2006 and 2009. Intelligence sources have indicated that they are now working on and capable of testing a highly-enriched uranium-based test any time soon in Gilju, North Hamkyung Province.
- Politics & Government
- Foreign Policy
- North Korea
- Kim Jong Un