In N. Korea, a Determinedly Rosy View of Satellite Launch

Kim Jong Il expressed "great satisfaction" at the launch of the satellite, which experts said crashed into the Pacific. "It is a striking demonstration," he was quoted as saying.
Kim Jong Il expressed "great satisfaction" at the launch of the satellite, which experts said crashed into the Pacific. "It is a striking demonstration," he was quoted as saying. (By Katsumi Kasahara -- Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

TOKYO, April 6 -- Kim Jong Il has expressed "great satisfaction" that North Korea succeeded Sunday in launching a satellite into orbit.

The North Korean leader's satisfaction, as state news media explained it Monday, was in no way diminished by a worldwide expert consensus, based on tracking data, that the satellite did not go into orbit but plopped into the Pacific, where it apparently sank.

"It is a striking demonstration," Kim was quoted as saying, "that our scientists and technicians developed both the multistage carrier rocket and the satellite 100 percent with their own wisdom and technology and accurately put the satellite into orbit at one go."

As the satellite story suggests, facts as told by state news media inside Kim's North Korea often have an inverse relationship to facts as understood everywhere else. State propaganda, instead of merely shading the truth, tends to invent an alternative universe.

When a U.N report on human rights this year described North Korea as an "oppressive regime" that subjects ordinary people to "intolerable and interminable suffering," the official Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang responded, "There is no 'human rights issue' in the country, as everybody leads the most dignified and happy life."

If state-controlled media had been allowed to release an accurate account of Sunday's rocket launch, they could still have reported real technological success, experts said.

The massive first stage of the Taepodong-2 missile functioned well, propelling the upper two stages high over Japan and far out into the Pacific. That marked a major advance over the first test of the missile, in 2006, which failed in less than a minute. The rocket launched Sunday also traveled twice as far as any missile the country has launched before.

Yet a nuanced accounting of the rocket's successes and failures does not appear to suit the North Korean political calendar. Sunday's launch was timed to kick off a festive political week in Pyongyang for Kim, whose government has a history of sending its critics to concentration camps.

A new rubber-stamp parliament is also scheduled Thursday to reappoint Kim as chairman of the National Defense Commission, which runs the military and is the state's supreme decision-making body.

Kim, 67, is reportedly recovering from a stroke he suffered last year. Since January, though, he has been unusually active.

He has shaken up the top leadership in the government and in the military. His government repeatedly threatened neighboring South Korea and Japan with war if they dared interfere with his missile launch. (They did not dare.) And he has made scores of campaign-style appearances at farms, factories and military bases across the country.

The government shakeup, the threats, the personal appearances and the "successful" launch of the rocket on Sunday all appear to be consistent with a leader who wants his people to view him as sound of mind and as strong as ever.

In the months-long run-up to the rocket launch, the country's most important domestic problem -- a chronic shortage of food -- was not glossed over by official media. Indeed, North Koreans were encouraged to collect their own feces as fertilizer for state farms and to go to the countryside to help with crop preparation.

Under Kim, the government has not been able to feed its people. As many as a million people died of famine in the 1990s. Malnutrition and stunting are still widespread, according to the U.N. World Food Program, which estimates that about 37 percent of the population will require food assistance this year.

The money that North Korea spent on Sunday's missile launch could have bought much-needed food, South Korea's unification minister, Hyun In-taek, said Monday.

"It would have been enough to fill North Korean stomachs," Hyun said.

A state-run research organization in Seoul has estimated that North Korea may have spent $300 million to $500 million to launch Sunday's missile. That amount could buy most of the 1 million tons of food needed annually to meet North Korea's food deficit.

But such estimates -- like the splashdown of a satellite into the Pacific on Sunday -- are not news inside North Korea.

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