2012: A make or break year for Kim Jong-un and his associates

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Why would North Korea launch a rocket into space now? Some of Pyongyang’s reasons are calendar-related: It’s been 100 years since the birth of national founder, Kim Il-sung; nearly a year since the death of his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, and the first year in power for Kim Jong-un.

It’s also a period of political transition for four countries with high stakes in the North: South Korea, the United States, China and Japan. North Korea insists it launched a satellite for peaceful purposes, but the act fits perfectly with its history of using carefully timed provocations to show the world it has dangerous weapons and must be engaged. At home, the launch allows Pyongyang to cultivate an “us against them” mentality, drumming up support.

The launch is complicated for China. Beijing remains North Korea’s biggest ally and the linchpin to its economic survival, but Pyongyang will not be called to heel. North Korea announced the rocket’s launch window just one day after Beijing sent an envoy bearing a letter to Kim Jong-un from new leader Xi Jinping.

North Korea also has domestic reasons for a rocket launch this year. Nearly four years ago, it set an ambitious goal for its people: to “open the gate to becoming a strong and prosperous nation in 2012” – the year Kim Il-sung would have turned 100.

And throughout his succession campaign and this first year of leadership, the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un has been characterised as young, tech-savvy and forward-thinking. He has promised a better future to win the favour of a people struggling with economic hardship. The rocket and satellite are portrayed by state media as a symbol of the nation’s future.