Nobody can quite figure out why North Korea, a country that instinctively lies to its people, admitted to the embarrassing failure of its rocket launch this morning. After the Unha-3 rocket broke apart and fell into the Yellow Sea last night, Pyongyang's state-run news agency issued a statement four hours later saying the "earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit." According to a tweet by NBC News producer Ed Flanagan, who's inside Pyongyang, the Korean Central News Agency reported that "scientists and engineers are currently working to find out the cause of satellite launch failure."
That's quite the revelation. Since 1998, North Korea has repeatedly lied about its failed attempts at putting a satellite into orbit, which in each case have plummeted into the Pacific Ocean. As The New York Times' Choe Sang-Hun and Steven Lee Myers point out, "To this day, it still boasts that a satellite is in orbit, broadcasting patriotic songs praising Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il." So why isn't 28-year-old Kim Jong Un's regime spinning the failed launch as some kind of herculean technological success? There are a few theories :
He's setting a precedent of transparency Admittedly, this is the most Pollyannaish view, but some think the openness demonstrates an effort by Kim Jong-un to blaze a new trail. “The way North Korea quickly admitted the failure of the launch may have reflected the reigning style of Kim Jong Un,” Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies in South Korea, tells The Los Angeles Times. “Unlike Kim Jong Il, who in the past hid his failures, Kim Jong Un called the foreign press and showed them what happened.”
Just wait, he's about to start lying Naval blogger and technology consultant Raymond Pritchett says North Korea may just be laying the groundwork to start blaming foreign enemies. "I expect the public announcement of failure is a precursor to blaming another country for tampering," he tweets.
He was forced into admitting it Because North Korea invited so many Western journalists into the country for the launch, The Washington Post's Chico Harlan says the regime may have been forced into it. However, he talks to other experts who say the regime probably realized that telling the truth was the best option. "North Korean citizens, despite government attempts to seal outside information, have increasing access to news accounts that filter in from China, and might have learned about the failure anyway," writes Harlan. "The admission could prompt scattered criticism of the government, but it is 'unlikely to be an igniting factor for any substantial changes,'" an analyst in Seoul tells him.
He may be looking for an excuse to clear house In what is an admittedly "wild" guess, Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell tweets "What if Kim Jong Un uses the missile failure to get rid of some of his father's people?"
He blew up the rocket himself At a press conference in Tokyo today, attended by Atlantic Wire contributor Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, North Korean expert Tomomitsu Shigemura, a professor at Wakeda University in Japan, predicted the regime would eventually claim that it foiled its own launch. Shigemura said he expects the regime to say there "was a problem after the launch, and in order not to create inconvenience for other nations, they made their own decision to go ahead and explode the rocket on their own initiative.” As Stucky adds in her report on Japan Subculture, "The North Korean leadership could then brag that they had such tremendous technology that they can destroy their own rocket. (Twisted logic but not if you live in North Korea.)"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.