by Pepe Escobar
A sensational cliffhanger has been set up ever since that fateful March 16 when the Korean Committee for Space Technology announced that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) would send Kwangmyongsong-3 ("Guiding light", or "Polar Star") - a polar-orbiting satellite - into space, atop the Unha-3 launch vehicle.
Unha means "Milky Way". But according to North Korean mythmaking, it also designates the current Supreme Leader, 20-something Kim Jong-eun, "a heaven-sent statesman set to lead the ancestral Land of Morning Calm to millennium prosperity".
Not even Hollywood on a wild ride can beat a script like this.
Literally, the whole planet was waiting for this rocket launch out of Sohae ("West Sea") in Cholsan County - during a window between April 12 and 16. According to an official statement, "a safe flight orbit has been chosen so that carrier rocket debris to be generated during the flight would not have any impact on neighbouring countries."
To no avail; every regional carrier from Japan Airlines and ANA to Philippine Airlines frantically scrambled to alter their flight paths.
As far as eulogies for what is officially the third North Korean satellite launch are concerned, it's hard to beat the inimitable Kim Myong-chol - the unofficial spokesman for the Kim dynasty.
He maintains that, "to mark the 100th anniversary of founding father Kim Il-sung's birth" (it falls this Sunday), Kim Jong-eun ("the world's youngest but most sophisticated statesman") has scheduled "the spectacular launch of an earth observation satellite that will present the world with a spatial chorus of The Song of Marshal Kim Il-sung and Happy Birthday to You".
All this song and dance, though, had the potential to lead to some serious embarrassment. North Korea launched a first satellite in 1998. The rocket failed. It launched a second in 2009. The rocket also failed. As far as the North Koreans are concerned, there was no failure. For internal public opinion, North Korea has already put two satellites into orbit.
But another failure, now, would represent a cataclysmic loss of face - especially with so many foreigners invited for the occasion (Iran, for instance, has mastered the technology with much less investment).
And that's exactly what happened this Friday morning. Although the rocket did not explode in front of everybody, the satellite failed to reach orbit, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) tracked the launch of what it describes as a "North Korean missile" at 6:39 pm EDT. NORAD says the missile went south over the Yellow Sea about 165 kilometres west of Seoul. Stages two and three failed. And no debris fell on land.
So far, North Korea did not blame the CIA for the failure.
Technically, the North Koreans were going for a satellite launch vehicle (SLV) - not a ballistic missile, as the US, Japan and South Korea insist. The technology is roughly the same. This means that even the launch of a SLV proves that North Korea may launch long-range ballistic missiles.
The hysteria about the launch displayed in selected latitudes (most of the real world, in fact, couldn't care less) has been a source of endless amusement.
Once again it's up to Kim Myong-chol to ask what's all the fuss. This is nobody else's business; it's about our sovereign right to celebrate Kim Il-sung's centenary. Besides, the "late, great fatherly leader Kim Jong-il" wanted it. And it's just a harmless polar-orbiting observation satellite anyway.
As for the North Korean Foreign Ministry, it has debunked the American/Japanese/South Korean apocalyptic warnings as "a handy pretext to press for establishing a missile defence system in East Asia with a view to restarting the Cold War, in a bid to rescue a Pax Americana on the brink of collapse".
Silly mutterings of "security experts" such as this one have been legion. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, barely containing her rage, warned of "appropriate action" in retaliation.
This, in practice, means that the whole package will land once again at the UN Security Council's table, where BRICS members China and Russia will block any resolution, allowing at best a pro forma "condemnation".
The usual scratchy CD played the same old tunes of "provocation", "intolerable" and "blatant" violation of the current UN sanctions - which forbid North Korea from acquiring and testing ballistic missile technology.
So what? Beijing may be slightly uncomfortable with this whole satellite of love business, but they can live with it. For the Chinese leadership, the top priority is stability in North Korea - even with a nuclear Kim dynasty. Better a nuclear Kim than a non-nuclear Kim, presiding over a North Korea falling apart. And nuclear Kim also beats the possibility of a powerful, unified Korea controlled by Seoul.
Satellite gone, down to the sea
Even if additional UN sanctions are applied over North Korea, those who will really suffer - just like in Iran - will be the bulk of the population, not the leadership.
It may be unforgiving, but this is the way realpolitik goes. For the North Korean leadership, foreign food aid for millions of their starving citizens is just a detail; they will only accept it under their terms, and if their own government agencies control the distribution.
They seem, indeed, to be on a roll. The Workers' Party of North Korea - at a rare special conference this week - has enshrined "most sophisticated statesman" Kim Jong-eun as its First Secretary. His father Kim Jong-il was declared "eternal" general-secretary.
Kim Jong-eun was already Supreme Leader and Supreme Commander. Kimology rules that the next step is for him to be named chairman of the national defence commission; that's the Holy Grail of power in North Korea.
So yes - he's the real deal now, at least nominally, surrounded by a collective military leadership whose number one priority is to solidify North Korea as a nuclear power - and that will inevitably include a third underground nuclear test after the failed satellite launch.
The North Korean leadership's Big Picture is actually crystal clear; with our nuclear capability firmly established, Washington's only way out is to negotiate a peace treaty with us to end the Korean War (for the moment there's only the July 1953 armistice). That would imply the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. Over the Pentagon’s collective dead body - of course.
It has also not escaped the attention of virtually the whole developing world that because of its nuclear status, no NATO or selective "international community" is threatening North Korea with military strikes, bunker buster bombs, regime change or R2P ("responsibility to protect").
So it's back to the mystery now lying at the bottom of the Yellow Sea. Was it a satellite? Was it a missile? Or was it a recording of "heaven-sent statesman" Kim Jong-eun singing Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love?
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
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