SEOUL--In what must amount to a major embarrassment, North Korea has announced it is extending the window for an imminent and widely condemned plan to launch a rocket this month because of "technical difficulties."
Initially, North Korea said the launch would go ahead between Dec. 10 and 22. But on Dec. 10, the country's state-run media abruptly announced that the scheduled launch, ostensibly to put a satellite in orbit, could take place as late as Dec. 29.
It is widely assumed that North Korea intends to test a long-range ballistic missile, as it did in April, although that attempt ended in spectacular failure.
The latest announcement shows that North Korea, under new leader Kim Jong Un, is determined--come what may--to go ahead with the launch before the year is out.
Under late leader Kim Jong Il, Kim's father, North Korea's impoverished population was promised that 2012 would be the year that the gate opens to a "great, prosperous and powerful nation."
Analysts believe the North Korean leadership is making every effort to ensure a successful launch to maximize its leverage in negotiations with other powers and to bolster national prestige while solidifying the leadership base of Kim Jong Un, the country's youthful leader.
"North Korea is forging ahead with the launch, despite the discovery of technical defects and harsh weather conditions," said a South Korean government source, adding that "domestic circumstances are obliging it to do so."
Kim Jong Un took over following the death of his father a year ago.
There was speculation that the launch would go ahead on Dec. 17, the first anniversary of Kim's death.
Kim's son is thought to have a relatively stable hold over the country, but to what extent appears to be open to question.
"Kim Jong Un is struggling desperately to maintain his regime," said one diplomatic source well-versed in North Korean affairs.
Kim Jong Un seems to be keenly aware of the plight facing his countrymen. North Korea is gripped by chronic food shortages and power blackouts.
North Korean government sources have said the country has set about reforming the agrarian sector and state-run enterprises. But those efforts have only been introduced on a trial basis in selected regions.
"We will ensure that our people do not have to tighten their belts again," Kim Jong Un said in a speech in April that was a clear statement of intent to never allow his people to starve again.
"In terms of reforms, nothing has been achieved yet that could be termed an accomplishment," said one economic analyst in South Korea.
Pyongyang, meantime, is tightening its internal control following sporadic instances of social unrest, according to well-placed sources.
Kim Jong Un has recently made frequent visits to public security organizations. He hosted a national conference of police substations and ordered workers, during his congratulatory speech, to expose "impure, hostile elements who are machinating slyly to arouse tumults and disturbances."
"That is probably the flip side of his uncertainty about the stability of his regime, given his own perception of public discontent," said the South Korean government source.
Analysts say Kim Jong Un is using the "satellite launch" as a means to vent that discontent.
In April, North Korea launched a long-range missile, ostensibly to fulfill Kim Jong Il's "dying wish," to coincide with the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un's grandfather and the country's founding president.
The launch failed. But that didn't stop North Korea from openly pursuing its missile development program under the pretext of "peaceful use of outer space."
According to experts in South Korea, fixing the cause of April's failure is anything but easy. The fact that North Korea scheduled another launch just eight months later, despite unfavorable weather conditions in the dead of winter, suggests that a lot is riding on national prestige.
In any event the scheduled launch period includes the Dec. 17 anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death.
That alone shows that the launch is considered vital to national prestige as the nation marks the first anniversary of rule under a third generation member of the Kim family.
While some observers said North Korea could still postpone the launch due to the technical problems, Pyongyang clearly intends to have everything sorted out by Dec. 29.
That date coincidentally marks first anniversary of the national memorial service for Kim Jong Il. Dec. 30 is the first anniversary of Kim Jong Un's elevation to supreme commander of the military.
"North Korea is probably hoping to realize the launch by whatever means possible before that period and maximize its political leverage for stabilizing the regime," said one source well-versed in North Korean affairs.
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