Kerry Brown: This inept move may finally try the patience of China

Has Kim Jong-un been given rope to hang himself or will this failure strengthen his hand?

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There are two aspects of the failed North Korean nuclear launch, one technical, and the other political. The technical issue is easy to deal with. This event was a big loss of face for Pyongyang.

A successful launch would have reminded the world that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is not going to go away, and needed to be given more serious airtime. It might have been worth the flak the country knew they were going to get as a result of this event.

A failed launch brings down the ire of the international community and puts North Korea firmly back in the doghouse, despite the positive moves seemingly afoot between it and particularly the US recently.

The failed launch also reinforces what was already known. North Korea has creaky, poor technology – which is why there are few customers, even among those that are willing to break embargoes, to buy its weapons. Whatever its aspiration, it has shown in the last 24 hours that it lacks the capacity to back them up with hard action. Its only card at the moment is being disruptive and awkward.

The political meaning is harder to work out. The pattern of good behaviour, then bad behaviour that was followed under Kim Jong-il looks set to continue. What is less clear is whether the elite group guiding this have anything like the crafty strategic sense of the late Kim. He at least proved adept at choosing his moment and getting North Korea back on the agendas of the key powers. This latest move underlines just how bare the cupboard of diplomatic options is.

Does this recent inept move show that Kim Jong-un has been given rope by the experienced leaders around him to hang himself, and free them up now to get on with the adult business? Does it show that without Kim Jong-il the decision-making structures have fallen apart and there is disarray and incompetence? Does it show that this is a decision by senior leaders which has gone badly wrong and will strengthen the hand of a perhaps more emollient Kim Jong-un?

It could be any of these or none of them. The bottom line, as the South Korean government statement issued yesterday morning made clear, is that North Korea has violated a UN resolution, at a time when its people are still hungry, its political system is grinding to a halt, its leadership has limited domestic credibility, and its international position has never been more isolated. And with China, the one sole diplomatic friend, distracted by a leadership transition which has just been knocked sideways by the fall of Bo Xilai, former Politburo member, it seems likely that their famous patience with their "little brother" might finally wear out, and some sharp, harsh words might be heading their way.

Kerry Brown is the head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House

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