Missile Failure Raises Questions on N. Korean Leader’s Grip

Kim Jong Un suffered a public humiliation as North Korea’s third-generation leader unlike any his father or grandfather faced after the totalitarian state admitted a long-range rocket failed shortly after liftoff.

The launch was meant to mark the April 15 centennial of grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung and further cement the younger Kim’s assumption of the family mantle, which the government has been burnishing since he took over in December. Its failure may raise questions of his hereditary hold on power as he deals with the country’s impoverished economy and international condemnation of its nuclear program.

“It’s going to be destructive in North Korea,” said Bruce W. Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp. who is visiting Seoul. “They’re going to look at this as the failure of a young guy who hasn’t shown his mettle yet. We really don’t know the strength of his grip yet.”

South Korea warned that chances are “very high” the regime will conduct a nuclear test to seek redemption and domestic support. The U.S. called off food assistance to North Korea that was to be provided under a February deal, and the United Nations Security Council “deplored” the launch, according to U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice.

Asian stocks climbed yesterday, with the MSCI Asia Pacific Index rising 0.9 percent. The won rose 0.5 percent.

20 Pieces Fell

The missile reached an altitude of 151 kilometers (93 miles) before disintegrating into 20 pieces and falling into the ocean 100 to 150 kilometers off the western coast, South Korean Major General Shin Won Sik said in Seoul. North Korea’s state- run Korean Central News Agency said scientists “are now looking into the cause of the failure.”

The rare public admission contrasted with previous tests, and came after the regime invited foreign journalists to watch the launch. When North Korea fired a Taepodong-2 missile in April 2009 that crashed into the Pacific Ocean, it claimed it had been a successful satellite launch.

“North Korea promised transparency throughout this ‘satellite’ launch to prove that it wasn’t a missile test,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “They had to keep their word because the backlash would have been worse if they had tried to mask it as a success.”

Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s leader after the Dec. 17 death of his father Kim Jong Il. The third son of the late dictator, he is thought to be less than 30 years old, went to school in Switzerland and resembles his grandfather. He was made a four-star general in September 2010 in the first official notice he was being groomed to succeed his father.

Food Deal

He inherited a country of 24 million people suffering from chronic malnutrition and dependent upon China for assistance. North Korea has twice detonated atomic devices and refuses to abandon its nuclear program.

North Korea agreed in February to suspend missile and nuclear tests in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid, a deal that was broken by yesterday’s events. Japan and South Korea joined the Obama administration in condemning the launch.

The U.S. won’t send the food aid and will take further steps if the totalitarian state engages in additional “provocative behavior,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, told reporters traveling yesterday with President Barack Obama to Florida and a summit in Latin America.

Possible Nuclear Test

A South Korean intelligence report this week warned that North Korea may soon detonate its third nuclear device. Recent activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site is consistent with preparations for previous detonations in 2006 and 2009, according to the report.

North Korea will allocate 15.8 percent of the total state budgetary expenditure for national defense this year, KCNA said, citing Finance Minister Choe Kwang Jin.

At the UN, Security Council members yesterday agreed that the North Korean launch violated previous sanctions imposed by the world organization, according to Rice, who spoke as president this month of the 15-member body.

“The Security Council agreed to continue consultations on an appropriate response in accordance to its responsibilities given the urgency of the matter,” she said.

‘Military First’

As part of the centennial celebrations, the country’s sole political party named Kim its head on April 11, and the Supreme People’s Assembly yesterday named him head of its National Defense Commission, positions previously held by his father.

North Korea’s “military first” ideology holds that the top priority is strengthening the 1.2 million-strong armed forces. The country technically remains at war with South Korea since their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty and public statements regularly accuse the South, the U.S. and Japan of having belligerent intent.

Senior military officers were also promoted this week to the party’s Politburo, in a possible sign that the military remains the dominant force in North Korean politics, according to analysts including Park Young Ho. The missile’s crash could undermine Kim’s position as the supreme wielder of military power.

“Kim Jong Un’s political fate depends on how much he can control the military and he needs to prove his military capabilities,” said Park, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “Were this long-range rocket launch successful, he would have cleared doubts about his ability to lead and gain legitimacy.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sangwon Yoon in Seoul at syoon32@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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