Young North Korea leader a gambler, rocket launch proves

Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader who's not yet 30, gave the order himself to launch a rocket the rest of the world sees as thinly disguised test of banned missile technology.

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Only eight months after a very public rocket launch failure and less than a year on the job, North Korea's young leader took a very big gamble this week.

It paid off, at least in the short term, projecting Kim Jong Un to his people as powerful, capable and determined.

North Koreans gathered en masse Friday in a staged demonstration, partly to glorify Kim and partly to celebrate the launch of the rocket, which Pyongyang says put a crop and weather monitoring satellite into orbit. The rest of the world saw it as a thinly disguised test of banned long-range missile technology.

The launch's success, 14 years after North Korea's first attempt, shows more than a little of the gambling spirit of the third Kim to rule North Korea since it became a country in 1948.

"North Korean officials will long be touting Kim Jong Un as a gutsy leader" who commanded the rocket launch despite being new to the job and young, said Kim Byung-ro, a North Korea specialist at Seoul National University in South Korea.

North Korean state media said Kim himself issued the order to fire the rocket Wednesday despite the prospect of another failure and condemnation from abroad. Kim was praised for boldly carrying out his father and former leader Kim Jong Il's last wish before his Dec. 17, 2011, death.

Kim Jong Il had made development of missiles and nuclear weapons a priority despite international opposition and his nation's crushing poverty.

His son's success is likely to help him consolidate his power over a government crammed with elderly, old-school lieutenants of his father and grandfather, foreign analysts said.

But what is unclear is whether Kim will continue to smoothly solidify power, steering clear of friction with the powerful military while dealing with the strong possibility of more crushing sanctions against a country with what the United Nations calls a serious hunger problem.

"Certainly in the short run, this is an enormous boost to his prestige," said Marcus Noland, a North Korea analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Noland, however, also mentioned the "Machievellian argument" that this could cause future problems for Kim by significantly boosting the power of the military — "the only real threat to his rule."

There is also the question whether Kim, after thumbing his nose at the world by firing the rocket, will continue to ignore the universal wisdom that "North Korea's only hope for escaping economic implosion is for the country to open up economically," said Robert Hathaway, Asia director at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.

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As a cold wave lifted, tens of thousands of people gathered at the snowy Kim Il Sung Square Friday, some dancing in the plaza before the rally began, continuing beer-filled street celebrations that had started on Wednesday.

Top officials told the people the critics abroad were characterizing the launch as a missile test. Denying the claims, they urged North Koreans to stand defiant in the face of outside condemnation.

Despite the success, experts say North Korea is years from even having a shot at developing reliable missiles that could bombard the American mainland and other distant targets.

A missile program is built on decades of systematic, intricate testing, something extremely difficult for economically struggling Pyongyang, which faces guaranteed sanctions and world disapproval each time it stages an expensive launch.

North Korea will need larger and more dependable missiles, and more advanced nuclear weapons, to threaten U.S. shores, though it already poses a shorter-range missile threat to its neighbors.

Successfully firing a rocket, however, was so politically crucial for Kim at the onset of his rule that he allowed the April launch to go through even though it resulted in the collapse of a nascent food-aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal with the United States, North Korea analyst Kim Yeon-su of Korea National Defense University in Seoul said.

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The launch success "consolidates his image as true successor of his father's songun (military-first) leadership, but it will also deepen his country's economic isolation because sanctions will get tougher. That will hurt his image as an economically savvy leader and undermine his legitimacy for the next two to three years," Kim said.

The next big question is how the outside world will react. U.N. Security Council condemnation has already come; more sanctions may follow, both from the U.N. and individual countries.

Scott Snyder, a Koreas specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently that the launch and North Korea's nuclear ambitions should inspire cooperation between the often wary U.S. and China, and South Korea and Japan.

If there is a common threat that should galvanize regional cooperation "it most certainly should be the prospect of a 30-year-old leader of a terrorized population with his finger on a nuclear trigger," Snyder said.

AP writers Foster Klug and Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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