South Koreans Wary After Rocket Launch From North

North Korea's launch of a three-stage missile and its success in placing a satellite into space is a propaganda coup for the country's new leader, Kim Jong Un. But the launch is also significant because of its impact on relations between the North and South Korea, which holds a general election next week. Robert Siegel talks to Anthony Kuhn.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

North Korea's missile launch comes at a sensitive time for South Korea, which will hold national elections in a week. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul now to discuss how the launch is affecting politics on the Korean Peninsula. And Anthony, have we heard any more news out of North Korea about how this success is being received by people there?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, we have seen pictures out of North Korea of smiling soldiers and military bands celebrating the launch. Clearly, this is what the government wants people to see. It's part of a narrative. The North Korean media say that this launch was actually done at the behest of Kim Jung-Il, the father of the current leader, Kim Jung-Un. His orders were that a scientific satellite be launched to mark the 100th birthday of his father, Kim Il-Sung.

So this is to reinforce this sort of dynastic narrative.

SIEGEL: But I want you to put this in the context of a country, North Korea, that faces very dire economic hardships and yet is moving on with a missile program, a satellite launch, a nuclear program. How does all this fit together in North Korean views?

KUHN: Well, you know, whatever public relations gains they may get from this domestically, of course, the nuclear program and the missile program are part of a strategic calculation, that this is where their security lies. So they're going to go ahead with that anyways. And while you may have public displays of celebration over this launch, in private, I think, a lot of North Koreans are very cynical that the missile and nuclear programs have both been expensive failures and they do not distract from people who are going through hunger for very long.

SIEGEL: This was a rare success in a string of failures with missile launches, we should note here.

KUHN: That's correct. It was the first successful try in five attempts. And had it failed, it could have had very negative political ramifications for leader Kim Jung-Un.

SIEGEL: Well, let's turn to where you are in South Korea. What's the reaction there to the missile launch?

KUHN: Well, the impact was not immediately felt. There were demonstrations by conservative civic groups, which can often be seen protesting on such occasions, burning North Korean leaders in effigy. The missile launch did not keep the stock market from actually making gains today. One segment of the population that was somewhat disheartened was the South Korean rocket scientist community who noted that while South Korea is still struggling to launch a two-stage rocket, here North Korea has launched a three-stage rocket successfully.

And one scientist was actually quoted by local media as saying that North Korea may now have a decade or more advantage of them in rocket technology.

SIEGEL: And South Koreans are right in the middle of a presidential election campaign. How is the missile launch playing in South Korean politics?

KUHN: Well, we don't know in the sense that no poll results have shown any difference. Both parties contesting the election have condemned the launch. At the same time, both parties are probably going to take a more engagement oriented stance towards North Korea and they're both using the launch for their own purposes. And the opposition took the opportunity of today's launch to berate the ruling party for failing to see this launch in advance - in other words, calling it an intelligence failure.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea.

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