“Kim Jong Eun! Kim Jong Eun!” they shouted, according to accounts from journalists in Pyongyang. “Safeguard him till death!”
The rhetoric was both celebratory and typical, a snap back to the norm as authorities carried on with their most important event in decades — a weekend designed to mark the centenary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth and to finalize the rise of his grandson.
Officials in Washington and Asian capitals are watching closely for signs of backlash after the botched launch and subsequent — unprecedented — admission of failure, relayed to the North Korean public in a brief television address. But analysts said Saturday that the launch failure would cause greater damage to the North’s perception on the international stage than among its own people.
The aborted 90-second flight of a three-stage rocket — far shy of what is necessary to reach orbit — suggested that North Korea hasn’t yet perfected a weapons system capable of reaching the United States. South Korean officials fear that Pyongyang might now have more incentive to conduct a third nuclear test, as a way to reestablish its might.
Inside the country, though, the setback was relatively minor, experts said, noting that North Korea has overcome far greater domestic hurdles, including reported minor protests after a currency revaluation in 2009 that wiped out private wealth.
North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper did not mention the satellite launch in its 10-page Saturday edition. Rather, it included detailed play-by-play accounts of recent political get-togethers, held Wednesday and Friday, where Kim Jong Eun received a series of new titles giving him absolute power comparable to that of his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December.
As part of those conferences, the North also made several modest changes within its top leadership groups, appointing three new members to the powerful National Defense Commission. The most notable was Choe Ryong Hae, thought to be in his early 60s, who also received top positions in several of the other bodies.
That means Choe, a close lieutenant of Kim Jong Il, now holds the broad authority enjoyed only by the inner circle of power brokers, including Jang Song Thaek and Kim Kyong Hui, who are Kim Jong Eun’s aunt and uncle.
“The one thing to watch is the rise of Choe Ryong Hae,” the youngest of the regents who support Kim Jong Eun’s power, said Ken Gause, an Alexandria-based analyst specializing in North Korea’s leadership. “There’s no question this guy has been the big winner. Meantime, it’s become very obvious now what we’re looking at. Kim Jong Eun is no doubt the supreme leader, but he is supported by a small, powerful network. He has to rely on power brokers throughout the regime to get things to operate.”
In the four months since Kim Jong Il’s death, the country has made no large-scale changes to its system or priorities. It has also been slow to promote a younger generation of leaders, leaving Kim Jong Eun largely surrounded by much the same group that supported his father, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Kookmin University.
“We don’t see anybody who might be seen as a drinking buddy of Kim Jong Eun,” Lankov said. “The transition has gone much smoother than most people, including myself, expected. So far, we don’t see any direct challenges. No drastic changes in the power structure. It’s the same policy and the same faces.”