Geoff FordenShooting the Messenger (or not)

I was famously quoted in the New York Times (and in Newsweek) as saying about the failure of the April 5th, 2009 satellite launch attempt:

It’s got to be embarrassing. I can imagine heads flying if the Dear Leader finds out the satellite didn’t fly into orbit.

Not too many people have noted the if in that quote — though I certainly wanted to emphasize it at the time. It turns out that the Dear Leader has not found out his satellite splashed into the sea: North Korea still maintain the satellite made it into orbit. One can certainly understand his advisors’ reluctance to correct that impression. I can even imagine Kim going to his space center to listen to it beep as it goes over head.

Unfortunately, its becoming clearer and clearer that North Korea really did achieve everything they need to to launch a two stage missile quite a distance.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Unfortunately, its becoming clearer and clearer that North Korea really did achieve everything they need to to launch a two stage missile quite a distance.

    Have you been able to generate a throw-weight vs range curve for that missile?

  2. Geoff Forden (History)

    Not me, but other people have. I’ve been too busy writing a paper on reconstructing the trajectory. Hopefully, those others will release their findings soon.

  3. Major Lemon (History)

    As someone else pointed out earlier, it did actually go into [sub-acquatic] orbit which was probably the face saver.

  4. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    Geoff – Maybe I am missing something, but media accounts some time ago reported that Kim keeps tabs on Western news via CNN and the internet. Whether or not he believes what he has presumably read and seen by now about the launch failure, are you suggesting that the KCNA’s press reports are intended to keep Dear Leader in the dark and are not just for internal propaganda purposes?

  5. Geoff Forden (History)

    It is, of course, impossible to know what Kim knows and when he knew it. However, there is a remarkable history of “advisors” keeping the truth from dictators. My favorite story is one Rad Barton tells about the Iraqi bioweaponeers dumping a thousand liters or so of concentrated anthrax out in the desert during the last night of the First Gulf war, as ordered. When the sun came up, they realized they were a kilometer away from one of Saddam’s palaces. There was no way they could tell him that was where they dumped it so they were stuck telling both him and the West that they had dumped at that location. That fear, more than anything else,might be the reason they couldn’t tell UN inspectors the true location. Saddam, too, listened to CNN. (Im not sure he used the internet.) The question becomes: which does a dictator believe, the Western media or his trusted advisors. Saddam picked his advisors.

    Ignoring the media is not something that is limited to dictators. How else do you explain Paul Wolfowitz saying that Iraq had no history of ethnic strife?

  6. Daniel Pinkston (History)

    Of course Yura knows about the failure and why. I’ve never met him, but everyone I’ve spoken with who has says he is very well briefed. And when something comes up he doesn’t know, which is not often, he turns to his advisors/staff for clarification. The guy is known to be a micro-managing control freak. He’s been close to the long-range missile development program since its inception, and will demand to know the truth.

    Yura spends a lot of time verifying info and checking the loyalty of senior people. And he’s become quite good at it. If the engineers tried to hide the truth about the launch from Kim and the NDC, they’d pay the ultimate price.

    If the NKs got telemetry as suggested, then I’d bet Yura’s engineers have the best info on the failure because they built the rocket (well, they had foreign assistance over the years). I’d say Kim and Chu Kyu-ch’ang know more about it than just about anyone else.

    The video picture of the rocket in flight was good enough for the domestic audience and domestic politics, which was the major driving force behind the test.

    DPRK media fabricate stories and revise history all the time: Yura’s birthplace (and hence denial of the Russian nickname), the foundation date of the KPA, denying Chinese support in the Korean War, denying East Germany rebuilt the City of Hamhung after the war, the U.S. using BW in the Korean War, the U.S. preparing to launch a nuclear attack any moment, SK maintaining a CW stockpile and threatening to attack the North with it, and now they are getting busy inflating “General” Kim Chŏng-un’s experience and credentials. I could go on and on.

    With the video footage they had, fabricating and sticking to the story of a “successful satellite launch” is EASY.

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