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North Korea is preparing to mark the 100th birthday of its late founder, Kim Il-sung, but the festivities have many outside North Korea in an uproar. Kim Jong-un has been in power since December, and he plans to honor his grandfather by launching a satellite on top of a long-range rocket. The international community has condemned the move as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Seoul, the launch is scheduled to go on and could come within a matter of hours.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: As North Korea fuels its rocket, political changes are afoot, too. Amid ceremony, Workers Party delegates have been meeting in Pyongyang to bestow an official title on their new 20-something leader, Kim Jong-un. He's now first secretary of the Workers Party, cementing his hold on power. And North Korea is gearing up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, its late founder Kim Il-sung.

North Korea expert from the University of Vienna, Rudiger Frank, says that's the main reason for the rocket launch.

RUDIGER FRANK: I think we shouldn't really misunderstand everything the North Koreans do as a signal sent to us. In a way, we could picture this rocket launch as a gigantic firework to mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, which I think is by far the largest holiday they ever had.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Even in the hills, a birthday gift for a long-dead dictator...

LIM: The regime's taken the unusual step of inviting journalists to the launch pad to see the rocket. The North Koreans insists it's for peaceful purposes, carrying a weather satellite. But the rest of the world fears this is another step towards creating an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Here's Baek Seung-joo from Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

DR. BAEK SEUNG-JOO: (Through Translator) In my opinion, North Korea is launching a rocket for military purposes. Its objective is not to launch a satellite into orbit, but to extend their missile range.

LIM: There's been furious international condemnation of the launch. But this could actually bolster the young leader's position, according to Sheen Seung-ho from Seoul National University.

SHEEN SEUNG-HO: If after missile launch, there is very strong pressure from the outside world, it will rather consolidate Kim Jong-un's political position within his own domestic society.

LIM: This launch was announced just 16 days after what's being called the Leap Day Agreement, when the U.S. agreed to give Pyongyang 240,000 tons of food aid. The North agreed to stop nuclear and long-range missile tests. Now that deal is dead. So what went wrong?

Victor Cha's a former Bush security advisor, now at Center for Strategic and International Studies. He blames ineptitude.

It's pretty clear that the North Koreans believe that a satellite launch is different from a ballistic missile test. And it's pretty clear that the United States believe that those two things went together. They just didn't agree. And for some reason, both sides walked away believing they had an agreement. And that might be a definition of ineptitude on both sides.

There are some signs that North Korea could follow its rocket launch with a nuclear test, which would be its third. Cha points out that in the past, such provocations have won Pyongyang condemnation, followed by the negotiations they were seeking.

So this - if you look, it's been a relatively successful strategy in the sense that since the mid-1980s, it takes on average about five months for the United States to reengage with North Korea after they do a provocation.


LIM: Thousands of North Koreans practice for massive celebration rallies. As they remember their Eternal President, their new leader is now in place, in title at least. Whether the rocket launch fails or not, the danger is that nobody knows how much control he has. And nobody knows whether he's still playing by the old playbook.

Louisa Lim NPR News, Seoul.

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