The dismal failure of North Korea's rocket launch will, and should, be a cause for widespread relief. Whether the launch was intended, as Pyongyang insisted, to put a satellite in orbit marking the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, or designed – as many Western observers believed – to test a long-range missile, or perhaps both, is for the moment an academic question.
The awkward truth, for a government that had invited foreign journalists to view the proceedings and catch rare glimpses of this secretive state, is that the rocket crashed into the sea soon after blast-off. North Korea may already have tested a nuclear weapon, but it has more work to do if it is to be able to use it. That should be some consolation to its neighbours, at least in the short term.
There will, of course, be speculation as to why the launch failed. Was it simply that North Korea has yet to master the technology? Or could sabotage of the conventional or cyber kind have contributed? Given Pyongyang's record of failure in testing rocket technology, the simpler explanation may well be right. But misfirings can also be dangerous, even if this particular rocket landed, apparently harmlessly, in the Yellow Sea.
The failed launch, however, could yet prove dangerous in another way. The signs are that Kim Jong-un, propelled to his country's leadership in December after the sudden death of his father, has yet to consolidate his hold on power. One of his first acts on taking over was to agreed to a resumption of the stalled six-power nuclear talks, in return for US food aid – an unexpected move widely hailed as positive. But any progress was thwarted by the almost immediate announcement of the planned rocket launch. These mixed signals suggested that the transition to the new young leader was as yet incomplete.
It remains unclear what the political fallout from the rocket failure will be. At worst, it could become the focus for destabilising recriminations that could foster paranoia and keep North Korea confined in its Stalinist shell. On the other hand, it could be used by Kim as a pretext for a change of course that might include increased openness to the outside world.
Although the presence of foreign reporters left the regime with little alternative, its swift acknowledgement of failure was a small positive sign. This is one crash-landing that just might contain seeds of hope as well as fear.