Failure to launch

North Korea put on quite a show Saturday, parading an impressive-looking array of nuclear missiles accompanied by the obligatory goose-stepping soldiers. According to the Washington Post, “experts were stunned at the sheer number of new missiles on display during the parade — including, apparently, a new and previously unknown type of intercontinental ballistic missile.”

However, the day ended badly for Kim Jong Un when North Korea’s latest missile launch, touted as both an act of defiance of and a warning to the U.S., ended in total failure. The missile blew up almost immediately, according to South Korean and U.S. military officials.

The New York Times suggests that credit should go to former president Obama:

Over the past three years, a covert war over the missile program has broken out between North Korea and the United States. As the North’s skills grew, President Barack Obama ordered a surge in strikes against the missile launches, The New York Times reported last month, including through electronic-warfare techniques.

It is unclear how successful the program has been, because it is almost impossible to tell whether any individual launch failed because of sabotage, faulty engineering or bad luck. But the North’s launch-failure rate has been extraordinarily high since Mr. Obama first accelerated the program.

Kim Jong Un almost surely will redouble his nuclear efforts in order to overcome the embarrassment of Saturday’s failure. Thus, we should all hope that the U.S. has developed the ability to sabotage North Korean launches.

However, the Times’ suggestion that the U.S. sabotaged today’s, or any other, launch is speculative. Neither the Washington Post nor the Los Angeles Times raises this possibility in its account of the failed launch.

The Trump administration’s response to North Korea’s failure was unusually matter of fact. Defense Secretary Mattis stated: “The president and his military team are aware of North Korea’s most recent unsuccessful missile launch. The president has no further comment.”

The Times says this response “left hanging the question of whether the United States played any role in the latest launch’s failure.” One might also view Mattis’ second sentence as wishful thinking.

My favorite part of the Times’ story is its concluding paragraphs:

One surprise from the parade was the re-emergence of Gen. Kim Won-hong, the former chief of the powerful secret police, the State Security Ministry.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service had said that General Kim was dismissed and demoted in January on charges of corruption and abuse of power. In recent months, he has been absent from state functions, spurring speculation that he might have been purged and sent to a re-education camp.

But on Saturday, he was among the generals on the reviewing stand. His uniform bore his four-star insignia, but he appeared to have lost weight.

The scientists held responsible for Saturday’s failed launch should be so lucky.

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