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The world is being pushed around by a North Korean ghost.

Summary: At 7:39 a.m. on April 13, North Korea fired a missile in the face of opposition from almost the entire international community.

At 7:39 a.m. on April 13, North Korea fired a missile (which it called a satellite launch) in the face of opposition from almost the entire international community. In a perverse way, the world got its way, because the vehicle exploded a minute after takeoff, its debris falling harmlessly into the sea.

North Korea typically goes silent after such episodes: "Failure" does not exist in its political lexicon, so it cannot be reported on or discussed. The country's media routinely meet any failure with outpourings of patriotic music and bombastic praise for the regime.

But this time the situation was different. Behind the scenes in North Korea, failure does have consequences. In the coming weeks, we will most likely learn of a purge of those individuals who were held responsible for the setback. Indeed, the engineers and scientists involved in the launch probably put their lives on the line.

Moreover, North Korea could not deny failure this time, because the regime invited international media to attend the event -- even allowing foreign reporters into the mission-control room -- in order to legitimize it as a "satellite" launch and not a weapons test. The "failure" could not be concealed, so the authorities had no alternative except to quickly admit to what had happened.

What was supposed to have been a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the late leader Kim Jong Il on April 15, and of the regime's new beginning under his successor, his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, ended up instead being a funereal salute. Supposedly ordinary people in Pyongyang told foreign media, with a practiced spontaneity, that "success is born of repeated failure."

That is a chilling sentiment. The missile launch is believed to have been a legacy of Kim Jong Il, who fervently believed that the survival of North Korea required it to develop nuclear and biochemical weapons. So the failed missile launch probably means that a resumption of nuclear testing will become inevitable, following nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

However, radioactive elements, such as Krypton-85 or Xenon-135, were not detected in the atmosphere after previous tests. Just as the North called the recent missile a "satellite," an underground explosion caused by conventional explosives cannot be used as a bargaining chip unless it is called a "nuclear test." The next one probably will occur as soon as 500-1,000 tons of dynamite have been secured.

The failed launch also marked a security fiasco for the North Koreans, as a South Korea think tank obtained the final orders that initiated the launch. These instructions casually referred to Kim family business, indicating that "the teachings should be executed by Kim Kyong Hui" (Kim Jong Il's sister), that "Kim Kyong Hui and Kim Jong Un should take care of the family," and that "Kim Kyong Hui should handle management of all assets inside and outside the country."

Foreign media often focus on Kim Kyong Hui's role as the wife of regime insider Jang Sung Taek. However, as Kim Jong Il's sister, she has been firmly in control of personnel changes in the North Korean regime since her brother's death. Of the 232 members on Kim Jong Il's funeral committee, she was listed 14th; her husband was 19th. She is ranked higher than her husband in terms of protocol. Indeed, Jang Sung Taek's promotion to the rank of general was her decision.

The problem is that Kim Kyong Hui is in poor health, owing to years of alcohol abuse. Moreover, she is so capricious and self-centered that even Kim Jong Il had trouble keeping her in check. Due to her poor health, it is unclear how long she will be able to continue advising Kim Jong Un, who is now surrounded by military personnel in their 70s and 80s who supported past generations. He needs advisers who are closer to his own age, but none is at hand.

Dynastic concerns now seem to be paramount for the regime. Speculation is growing, for example, about whether Kim Sol Song -- the second daughter of Kim Jong Il's third wife -- will be appointed when Kim Kyong Hui is no longer able to perform her duties.

Before his death, Kim Jong Il reiterated that at least three nuclear reactors should be built. He also warned that China, despite its being North Korea's closest ally, is also the country that merits the most caution. North Korea, he insisted, must not allow itself to be used by China.

When Kim Il Sung (the "Eternal Great Leader") died in 1994, Kim Jong Il relied on his father's teachings to reinforce his authority. Indeed, there is no way of knowing whether his ideas and policies throughout his reign were actually Kim Il Sung's. Perhaps Kim Jong Il's "Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System" should now be viewed as an official document that stipulates which instructions are to be followed when, where and by whom. In that case, his successor, the callow Kim Jong Un, can claim to be bound to do as he was told.

North Korea routinely pushes the international community around. But the North is itself being pushed around by a ghost, or at least his teachings, which are being used by the people who remain in charge in Pyongyang. How long will the rest of the world allow itself to be pushed around by a ghost?

Yuriko Koike is Japan's former defense minister and national security adviser. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

Copyright 2012, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:9NORT
Date:Apr 27, 2012
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