Pyongyang and the Wide Orbit of Truth

On April 13th, North Korea carried out its most recent act of defiance against the West, all of which past similar acts have been met not even with a slap on the wrist but with a stern finger-wag, by launching a ballistic missile, which subsequently exploded and fell apart in the Yellow Sea. This act, however, is quite different: for one, it “shot down” President Obama’s engagement policy with Pyongyang (as Chris McGreal cleverly quipped in The Guardian), and secondly it affirmed the West’s fears that Kim Jong-Un would proceed in the role his father and grandfather had laid out in the totalitarian state.

At least this is the story presented by Western media; the narrative presented by the North Korean government, particularly to its citizens, is quite different. This wasn’t a ballistic missile, they say, but a satellite launch vehicle designed to place a third North Korean satellite into orbit. According to the international (read: Western neoliberal) community, no North Korean satellite has ever made it into orbit: the first launch in 1998 and the second in 2009 both failed similarly to this one. This most recent failure, however, is a major source of embarrassment to North Korea: a small horde of international journalists was invited just for the occasion.

But was it a failure? If one follows the “international community’s” logic, and it was a ballistic missile, then it could potentially follow that North Korea was simply testing the first-phase thrusters of a ballistic missile, and it was successful in doing so and in breaking UN sanctions forbidding it from developing ballistic missile technology in order to further act out its inflammatory role. Given the near-farcical hysteria surrounding the incident, Pyongyang’s goal was achieved. If, however, it was “an earth observation satellite that will present the world with a spatial chorus of The Song of Marshal Kim Il-sung and Happy Birthday to You” as Pepe Escobar quoted Kim Myong-chol, propaganda minister, stating in an official press release, then it could only possibly be considered a failure. It seems that the story’s orbit must be reversed mid-flight in order to affirm either of these stories.

But lift your solar sails! Some veracity seems to be shining through, as North Korean State media soberly acknowledged the failed launch and stated that “scientists, technicians, and experts are now looking into the source of the failure.”

Upon closer examination, however, this presents even more problems, which a certain level of paranoid acuity may be necessary to uncover: North Korea has done little else in the past few decades besides provoke the West and step back just in time. Indeed, it has become very good at holding the attention of the world using precisely the methods it demonstrated here: defying sanctions upon which foreign aid depends, carrying out its threats, and cutting it’s inflammatory thrusters halfway. The cynic might cite ineptitude, but nay I say here! Clever machtpolitik practices are at play!

As Sung-Yoon Lee wrote in her excellent New York Times Op-Ed, North Korea’s survival depends on continuing its “profitable cycle [of] dangling before America the possibility of denuclearization, even as it conducts missile and nuclear tests.” This necessarily includes raising the stakes and creating the precise sort of candid optimism that predicted something of a coup d’état lead by rogue North Korean generals following this failure.

Manifold questions arise: was it a failure or a success? Are these designations even absolute? Was it a satellite or a ballistic missile? Did it fail or was it shot down perhaps or sabotaged, or perhaps even sabotaged by the North Korean government itself in order to achieve their perennial goal and to avoid real action taken by the West?

So long as Western neoliberal hegemony is challenged by this singular bubble of counterpropaganda, important only by virtue of it’s perpetrating (what in the West is considered) blatant lies to its citizens, the orbit of truth will remain elliptical at least. All truth claims might remain fluid, but claims of doubt (of the propaganda to which we are most blind) lie outside the true/false duality.

Perhaps analyzing our own media’s reactions, and our reactions to our media, is a better means of understanding North Korea than direct analysis itself, which by any means short of bunker-busters seems incapable of even really piercing the ideological fortress in Pyongyang.

Pepe Escobar joked that Pyongyang has yet to blame the CIA for the failed rocket launch, if and when they do let’s at least entertain the prospect that they might have a point: if at all, it is the West’s actions and reactions that make belligerent defiance necessary. Let’s start with that.