NORTH Korea staged a mass rally of soldiers and civilians yesterday to celebrate the rule of Kim Jong-un, days after he sent a satellite into orbit in defiance of international warnings.
Wednesday’s rocket launch came just eight months after a similar attempt ended in an embarrassing public failure, and just under a year after Kim Jong-un inherited power following his father’s death, Kim Jong-il.
The surprising success of the launch may has earned the 29-year-old global condemnation, but at home the gamble appears to have paid off. To his people, it has made him appear powerful, capable and determined in the face of foreign adversaries.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans, packed into snowy Kim Il-sung Square – named after Kim Jong-un’s grandfather – clenched their fists in a unified show of resolve as a military band played.
Giant banners in the square called on North Koreans to defend Kim Jong-un with their lives. They also paid homage to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.
The regime said the rocket put a crop and weather monitoring satellite into orbit. Much of the rest of the world saw it as a thinly disguised test of banned long-range missile technology. It could bring a fresh round of United Nations’ sanctions that would increase the North’s international isolation. At the same time, the success of the launch could strengthen its military, the only entity that poses a potential threat to Mr Kim’s rule.
The launch’s success, 14 years after North Korea’s first attempt, shows more than a little of the gambling spirit in the third Kim to rule North Korea since it became a country in 1948.
“North Korean officials will long be touting Kim Jong-un as a gutsy leader,” who commanded the rocket launch despite being new to the job and young, said Kim Byung-ro, a North Korea specialist at Seoul National University in South Korea.
The propaganda machinery churned into action early yesterday, with state media detailing how Kim Jong-un issued the order to fire the rocket just days after scientists fretted over technical issues, ignoring the chorus of warnings against the move.
Top officials followed Mr Kim in shrugging off international condemnation.
Workers’ Party secretary Kim Ki-nam told the crowd, that “hostile forces” had dubbed the launch a missile test. He rejected the claim and called on North Koreans to stand their ground against the “cunning” critics.
“It makes me happy that our satellite is flying in space,” Pyongyang citizen Jong Sun-hui said as yesterday’s ceremony came to a close.
“The satellite launch demonstrated our strong power and the might of our science and technology once again,” she said. “And it also testifies that a thriving nation is in our near future.”
Aside from winning him support from the people, the success of the launch helps Mr Kim’s image as he works to consolidate power over a regime crammed with elderly, old-school lieutenants of his father and grandfather,.
Experts say that what is unclear is whether Mr Kim will continue to smoothly solidify power, steering clear of friction with the military while dealing with the possibility of more crushing sanctions. The UN has said North Korea already has a serious hunger problem.
“Certainly in the short run, this is an enormous boost to his prestige,” according to American expert Marcus Noland, a North Korea analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
Mr Noland, however, also mentioned the “Machiavellian argument” that this could cause future problems for Mr Kim by significantly boosting the power of the military – “the only real threat to his rule”.
Successfully firing a rocket was so politically crucial for Mr Kim at the onset of his rule that he allowed an April launch to go through even though it resulted in the collapse of a nascent food-aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal with the United States, said North Korea analyst Kim Yeon-su of Korea National Defence University in Seoul.
The launch success consolidates his image as heir to his father’s legacy. But it could end up deepening North Korea’s political and economic isolation, he said.
Yesterday, the section at the rally reserved for foreign diplomats was noticeably sparse. UN officials and some European envoys stayed away from the celebration, as they did in April after the last launch.
Despite the success, experts said North Korea was years away from developing reliable missiles that could bombard the US mainland and other distant targets.