Returning from a recent trip to North Korea, a U.S. expert on the Korean Peninsula said Thursday there was a sense of “frustration” in Pyongyang after the North’s failed rocket launch on April 13.
At a guest lecture at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Jae H. Ku, the director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said North Koreans appeared to be frustrated after last week’s botched launch of a long-range rocket.
The North’s Unha-3 long-range rocket exploded mid-air about two minutes after blast-off on Friday and disintegrated into some 20 pieces, dealing an embarrassing blow to the prestige of North Korea under its new leader Kim Jong-un.
Ku, a Korean-American who emigrated to the U.S. at age 8, visited North Korea from April 10 to 17 with a team of American magicians who were invited to the April Spring Friendship Art Festival in Pyongyang. North Korea invited foreign artists to celebrate the April 15 centennial of the birth of its late founder Kim Il-sung.
“During my stay in North Korea, I could not talk to North Koreans except for managers who were in charge of our group,” Ku said. “Foreign tourists were carried out of Pyongyang for security reasons and had very limited access.”
Despite such tightened security measures, Ku knew “something was going on” on the eve of the launch day, as foreigners were held on a bus for more than two hours.
“There were hundreds of military trucks rushing into downtown Pyongyang,” Ku said, adding he learned of the rocket launch after watching BBC at his hotel.
On the last day of his eight-day trip, he visited an amusement park in Pyongyang, where he was surprised to find a larger-than-expected number of North Korean citizens were carrying cell phones.
According to a local media report, more than one million North Koreans subscribed to mobile phone services provided by Egypt’s Orascom Telecom, indicating growing mobile penetration in the reclusive country.
Ku went on to say that foreign journalists and reporters, who were invited by the North to observe the launch, also had very limited access to information before and after the regime’s rare admission of failure.
“Information is so vertically compartmentalized,” Ku said. “Reporters have no idea until the regime tells you 10 to 15 minutes before. They were running around everywhere… That’s how they (North Korea) regulate information.”
A former director of U.S.-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, Ku thought that he would not be able to get a visa to enter the country due to his past work on promoting human rights of North Koreans.