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Experts: Rocket launch bolsters North Korean leader

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 5:39 AM EST, Mon December 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • With rocket launch, Kim Jong Un can bolster domestic support
  • Ahead of his father's death anniversary, leader can say he fulfilled a promise to his people
  • Experts say Kim has positioned himself to make economic changes
  • It's unclear what will happen next in the reclusive nation

(CNN) -- The thing about North Korea is that once in a while, it does something that sends the international community into a flurry of talk about the hermit nation, even though little is known about what's really going on.

This week, Pyongyang fired a long-range Unha-3 rocket and sent a satellite into orbit. Nervous world leaders quivered as the rogue country defied a United Nations ban on developing nuclear- and missile-related technology.

Was the world a more dangerous place after Wednesday's event? What would it mean for North Korea's young leader as he is about to mark the first anniversary of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il?

When the son ascended to power, concerns surfaced over an inexperienced, mysterious heir taking charge of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, its hardcore and cultish communist society and a population of the hungry.

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His eldest half brother said in his book that he was concerned Kim Jong Un would fail to satisfy North Koreans.

Now, the new "Dear Leader" can claim not just a public relations victory but also a tangible accomplishment as he prepared for Monday's anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death.

Amid the dearth of information, one thing was clear: Kim Jong Un can now stand proud before his people on that big day.

"The question is what does Kim Jong Un intend? said Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York.

"It's been an interesting first year but as with most things in North Korea, we simply don't know," he said.

Few nuclear experts saw the launch as a tremendous technological advancement, but the perceptions were great and gave Kim a big boost in clout. He can say he fulfilled a promise that has kept his family dynasty in power for decades; that the nation's persistence to move on -- despite international isolation and internal hardship -- has paid off.

In that sense, the satellite launch was proof of progress and power, said Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who traveled to North Korea in 2010.

"He wants to show his people after one year in leadership, North Korea is a strong military, technological, space, nuclear power (with) nuclear weapons," Richardson said.

"I think that was partly to shore up the military, to shore up his support," he said.

James Schoff, a North Korea specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed.

"I think this is very important to Kim Jong Un to build political legitimacy and bolster the spirits of his people," he said. "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."

The launch was a continuation of Kim Jong Un's father's project and it was important to achieve success days ahead of the death anniversary, especially after a failed rocket launch in April. That launch had been timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding leader Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

"Then, it was a major embarrassment," said Han Park, director of the University of Georgia's Center for the Study of Global Issues who was in North Korea at the time of the failed launch. "So they tried to rectify that.

"This is a tremendous psychological boost vis-a-vis the South," Park said referring to the fact that South Korea has not yet put a satellite in space.

North Korea's ruling politburo is sure to spin the story as national dreams coming to fruition under the initiative of Kim, Park said.

Sure enough, the state-run news agency KCNA said the launch was "a desire at the behest" of Kim.

"All the people across the country are greatly excited at the news of the successful launch and progressives are extending sincere congratulations to them," it said.

The sentiment was echoed at a snow-dusted celebratory rally Friday.

"The successful launch was the result of Kim's "unique will, courage and boldness," said Jang Chol, head of the State Academy of Sciences.

The rocket launch allows Kim to establish military security for North Korea, said Park, and allows him to move forward with another priority: economic progress.

"This is an important game changer," Park said.

Park, who has been visiting North Korea for decades, said conditions for ordinary North Koreans remain bleak, though there is not the mass starvation the country suffered in the 1990s.

"Kim Jong Un's primary objective is to improve the economy by participating in the international market," Park said.

That's a feat that is not possible without U.S. cooperation.

"So he realized he has to improve relations with the outside world," Park said. "In the big scheme of things, Kim Jong Un must have thought that North Korea would be taken more seriously (after a rocket launch)."

Sigal said Kim has been consolidating his power for some time by sacking unwanted people from his Cabinet.

"Purge is too strong a word but there have been all sorts of changes," Sigal said. "That's telling me that this guy is taking charge and setting up for economic policy changes. Kim Jong Un staked his personal prestige on economic growth."

Sigal warned that at the moment, there were no signs of any economic changes.

Park, however, said he could see some evidence of the North Koreans boosting agricultural production, building hydraulic power plants and other infrastructure and inviting foreign investors. The Chinese, in particular, have taken advantage of that, Park said.

Sigal agreed that Kim Jong Un has shown signs that he wants to stimulate economic growth but the problem is that means he has to make a change from his father's military-first policy that devoted billions of dollars into weapons development.

"The question is does he have the political muscle and the political will to do that?" Sigal said. "He has certainly positioned himself to do that." In the world's most totalitarian state, it's difficult to predict the future.

But the rocket launch this week certainly cast the spotlight back on the enigmatic nation and served as a reminder to global powers that the North Korean problem isn't just going to slither sway.

"He's saying to the world, 'Look, I'm back,'" Richardson said about Kim Jong Un. "You can't keep me off the headlines. I have to be dealt with. This is the capability I have."

Richardson believes the main message this week has to be that the United States and the four other countries that have been involved in talks with North Korea -- China, Japan, South Korea and Russia -- have to come up with a new approach in their dealings with Pyongyang.

"These guys are serious; they've got missiles now," Richardson said.

"It's uncertain about the new leader," he said. "I'm disappointed, because I thought maybe there's a positive political opening with him."

Maybe there still is.

Sigal said the only way to get what Washington wants on the nuclear front is to come to the table. It's also the only way to know more about North Korea.

Sigal likes to say that there is only one thing tougher than negotiating. And that's not negotiating.

CNN's Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.

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