The ‘Rocket Man’ rocks in the DPRK

North Korea’s answer to South Korea’s Gangnam style is a ballistic Young Kim.

North Korea launches long-range rocket
North Korea has not only weaponised plutonium for up to five nuclear warheads, but also has its own uranium enrichment programme [EPA]

In a world where war is peace and newspeak is truth, it’s irresistible to consider North Korea’s launch of a space “object” the negative PR equivalent to South Korean PSY’s Gangnam style. 

Call it Jong-un style.  

At a spectacular mass victory rally in Pyongyang, Kim Ki-nam – a top member of the North Korean Politburo – made it all seem clear: “We successfully launched satellite Kwangmyongsong-3 during a turbulent period of time as we are making a strong dash for victory in the first year of the new 100 years of Juche era, under the refined leadership of dear comrade Kim Jong-un.” 

Twenty-nine-year-old Jong-un may not collect hundreds of millions of YouTube hits as Gangnam did. He may not be as cool as an Icelandic snowboarder. But he certainly knows how to rock a (geopolitical) crowd.

Jong-un style sent everyone from NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) to the usual “US officials” suspects scrambling. At first, the North Korean “object” was “some kind of space vehicle”; then it was “tumbling out of control”; finally it morphed into an evil ruse – a three-stage ballistic missile capable of hitting California.

The UN Security Council screamed the “object” was a “clear violation” of UN resolutions. If only they screamed so loud when Israel routinely goes on a rampage in Gaza, violating resolution after resolution. As for Beijing, it was forced to express a meek “regret” over the whole thing.  

Do you think I’m sexy?

Jong-un style is all about timing. The rocket extravaganza happened only five days before the first anniversary of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s death, this Monday. So, inevitably, all stops were pulled in Pyongyang to celebrate the launch – with more in store. Young Kim has already promised this is just the first of an array of North Korean satellites soon to be orbiting the Earth. A “space powerhouse” beckons.  

 Jim Walsh: N Korea’s rocket launch for
internal purposes

So Young Kim may not actually be the sexiest man on earth – as the Onion immortally coined it, even fooling the People’s Daily in China. But the fact is The Rocket Man, well, rocks. 

Right behind him, three others will be crucial in the subsequent running of the North Korea show: Jang Song-thaek (his uncle), Choe Ryong-hae (a key political strategist), and Ju Kyu-chang (the 84-year-old chief of the DPRK’s missile programme). 

2012 was supposed to be the year when the DPRK would become what official propaganda has relentlessly depicted as “a strong and prosperous country”. Well, the remixed version – alluded to by Kim Ki-nam in his speech – is that the DPRK is on its way, but it may take a while to get there. 

An auspicious sign is that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stressed that the country’s food production has increased by 10 per cent in 2012. 

Yet as far as Jong-un style is concerned, what really matters is for the new installment of the Kim dynasty to mark its territory. With the successful launch of the “object”, Young Kim keeps the immense North Korean military establishment smiling and the population proud – irrespective of what happens in the South Korean elections next Wednesday (the menu, in Seoul, oscillates between politics based on trust, or the return of the sunshine policy). 

For Young Kim, that’s immaterial. He now may be able to concentrate on putting more kimchi on the table of millions of deprived North Koreans. 

What a difference from the past spring, when the name of the game was humiliation; then, celebrating the centenary of his grandfather – DPRK’s founder Kim Il-sung – the Unha-3 rocket turned into ashes less than two minutes after liftoff. 

I’m not the man they think I am at home

So what was the “object” really about this time? Was it just a weather-tracking satellite? Or was it a disguised ballistic missile test? 

From an array of US agencies to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the stark fact is no one really knows anything verifiable on the status of the DPRK’s nuclear warhead development programme (SIPRI calls it “highly uncertain”). 

“Will the DPRK under Young Kim try to reproduce the Chinese miracle – call it turbo-market Leninism or socialism with North Korean characteristics?”

It is impossible even to verify a report by Japan’s Kyodo news agency, according to which Iranian military experts had been in Pyongyang for over two months, offering “technical assistance” for the rocket launch. 

What’s certain is that the Unha-3 rocket is a three-stage “carrier rocket” with a range of around 10,000 kilometres. The DPRK has already conducted two nuclear tests. It has already weaponised plutonium for up to five nuclear warheads. And it has its own uranium enrichment programme.

But for all these parts to coalesce into an intercontinental ballistic missile, that’s a long story; as in the DPRK being able to produce a nuclear weapon small enough to fit into a missile.

So on the nuclear front, virtually everything related to the DPRK is speculation. That leaves the economic front and – yes – more speculation. Will the DPRK under Young Kim try to reproduce the Chinese miracle – call it turbo-market Leninism or socialism with North Korean characteristics?  

Not likely. The rarified North Korean ruling elite won’t go for its own version of perestroika – not to mention glasnost. That would undermine its own power base, which rests on hardcore political control. 

Any “reforms” will be cosmetic. Especially because from the point of view of the ruling elite, the DPRK is stable. And they also know that for Beijing, even the idea of “regime change” is anathema. 

What I learned during my visit to North Korea in early 2010 remains true. Nothing will change unless the DPRK leadership sits on the same table face to face with the US government to sort out the unfinished Korean War. The next best scenario is an ironclad guarantee from Washington – which still does not exist – that the DPRK will not be attacked. 

None of this will happen anytime soon. So Jong-un will have plenty of time to develop his style – and his moves, and his wardrobe. Better get used to Rocket Man. He may even become a YouTube sensation.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).