Ed mentioned this earlier but after watching the clip at the Telegraph this morning I still can’t get over it. Rule one of totalitarian propaganda: The state is all-powerful and unerring. Resistance is utterly futile. The more captive citizens believe that, the less the regime has to worry about a revolt. Point being, this sort of admission should never, ever happen — yet here it is. How come? The Journal speculates that because the NorKs invited several dozen foreign journalists to report on the launch (which they weren’t allowed to personally witness), they felt obliged to ‘fess up publicly. But I don’t quite follow that logic. Who cares if reporters from other countries were going to go home and write it up as an epic fail? What’s important is what the locals think, and the locals will be carefully shielded from those stories.
So what gives? Let me float two theories, one highly implausible yet entertaining and the other more plausible and intriguing. Highly implausible yet entertaining: Maybe there really is a quiet power struggle going on at the top in the aftermath of Kim Jong-un’s succession and somehow one of the factions managed to get this onto state TV to embarrass the other. Can’t bring myself to believe that, though. If the rift was so deep that the regime had actually lost control of the information being transmitted on its own state TV mouthpiece, it would mean chaos behind the scenes. Surely there’d be other signs of it besides this. Which means it’s onto theory two, the more plausible and intriguing: The regime suspects it’s lost its monopoly of information inside the country due to radio broadcasts or other media from China and South Korea filtering in. They know the public — or a good chunk of it — is going to find out from outside media that the missile failed, which means they have two options. Either they can lie about it and lose credibility as North Koreans start to wonder about what other lies they’ve been told or they can tell the truth and preserve some of their credibility. They’re going to look weak either way as the news about the launch failure filters in; they might as well own it and try to maximize their retention of the people’s trust. The important point here, though, is that to force a confession like this the amount of foreign media now penetrating the country must be much bigger than we think. If that’s so, how long until the whole facade starts to crack? You can’t have a totalitarian state without total control.
While we’re on the subject of baffling behavior by North Korea (a big subject, I know), here’s another question to ponder: Why on earth did they build up this launch and then invite foreign reporters to witness it if they weren’t reasonably sure it’d succeed? And before you say “maybe they were reasonably sure,” read the following two posts at Danger Room arguing that not only do the NorKs not conduct missile “tests” in any meaningful sense of the term — they lack the money and the technical expertise — but they may actually be getting worse at launches. If you’re going to pop off a big missile as a show of strength to your citizen-captives and enemies abroad, you’d want to be awfully confident (a) that it’ll work and (b) that you can cover it up pretty well if it doesn’t. Their missile not only didn’t work, they didn’t even try to cover it up. This is how the new Kim “shows strength,” apparently. Bizarre.