For dozens of foreign journalists gathered in Pyongyang to cover a much-hyped North Korean missile launch, it was over before it even began. With little fanfare this morning, North Korea launched – and crashed – an Unha-3 rocket in its latest attempt to solidify the legitimacy of its advanced weapons systems and bolster its nuclear threat. Yet just as suddenly as the rocket disappeared over the Yellow Sea less than two minutes after takeoff, it also vanished from the government's agenda for the foreign press corps, despite unprecedented steps to bring press in for the launch.
"We didn't manage to get the satellite into the atmosphere - now scientists are working on explaining why," a government guide by the name of Ri told journalists, using the official government-stated line.
Now, the rocket's failure has transformed a carefully manicured media campaign into a public relations nightmare. Pyongyang rarely invites large numbers of foreign press into the country, and has ensured close international scrutiny of the rocket test. Initial expectations were that a live feed of the launch would be broadcast for journalists and would be followed by statements from North Korean government officials and scientific experts. But in the aftermath of the failure, the government has turned back to hyping its massive official parades, presumably to draw attention away from the failed satellite launch.
In the days leading up to the rocket test, North Korean authorities allowed journalists to travel to the launch site and the command center monitoring the rocket. The date of the highly anticipated launch was kept secret, but was set to coincide with a week of parades dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean republic.
The failure of the launch was not a secret in the North Korean capital. North Korean state television, one of the few news sources available to locals, gave a short statement that the rocket launch had failed afterthe South Korean Defense Ministry announced that it had monitored the crash this morning.
"The Earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit," a newsreader said on North Korea's state TV. "Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure."
Yet little more information was forthcoming. A hastily assembled official press conference on the rocket was suddenly cancelled Friday morning, and close to noon, handlers trundled the haggard press corps onto buses under high security. Expectations were that the government would make an official statement on the rocket launch's failure and give closure to the day's highly public embarassment.
The fanfare instead turned out to be in honor of a new, approximately 25-meter tall bronze statue of Kim Jong-il, North Korea's late leader and father to Kim Jong-un, the country's 29-year-old president. More than 100,000 North Koreans came out for a government organized celebration Friday evening with bright costumes, flags and flowers to celebrate the unveiling of the monument.
Accompanied by a military brass band and a fireworks display, close to a dozen government officials gave speeches extolling Kim Il-sung’s legacy. Yet the topic of the satellite launch was ignored entirely. Government-assigned handlers and translaters allowed interviews with North Koreans at the rally, but they hastily shooed away questions about reactions to the rocket's failure, saying the topic was forbidden.
The question now is how North Korea may salvage its reputation with foreign press planning to remain in the capital until Tuesday. Going off of Friday’s events and the omnipresent preparations for Sunday's parade, attention is now being directed at the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth.
Yet talk has also surfaced that North Korea may go ahead with a nuclear test that was rumored to be set to follow the launch. Anton Khlopkov, the editor of Nuclear Club magazine and just one of dozens of experts invited to Pyongyang for the launch, said a nuclear test could mitigate the fallout from the rocket's failure. “[A test] would make it possible that the release of the rocket won't become a serious, destablizing factor,” he said in an interview at Friday evening's parade.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.