North Korea’s first successful launch of a satellite into space last week was greeted with mixed reactions from the public, many of whom were frustrated by official handling of the event, according to sources inside the country.
The launch of the Unha-3 long-range rocket, which was condemned by other countries as a violation of bans against developing missile technology, carried the Kwangmyongsong-3 into orbit on Dec. 12, making impoverished North Korea one of only a handful of nations to put a satellite in space.
But sources said that tensions ran high amongst the North Korean people when they received an official order to drop what they were doing to view a “Special News” broadcast from the state-controlled Chosun Central Broadcasting Station at noon on the day of the launch.
They said that the use of the term “Special News,” which had previously only been used to announce the deaths of national founder Kim Il Sung and his son, former leader Kim Jong Il, frightened the people into expecting a report about the passing of current head of state Kim Jong Un.
“Urgent meetings among primary party secretaries began at 10:00 a.m. on Dec. 12 and those who attended the meetings were informed that there would be ‘Special News’ on television,” a source from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.
The source said that city and provincial officials hastily ordered all factories, labor organizations, and local offices to watch the report.
“People were very nervous while waiting for the news because the term ‘Special News’ was used only when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il died,” he said.
“The term ‘Important News’ is used when announcing other major issues.”
The source said that there was a sense of frustration amongst the people when they learned that the special news was about a satellite launch.
Another source in Yanggang province said that a memorial event for former leader Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack last December, was scheduled during the lunch hour, but that authorities had suddenly informed everyone that they would have to watch the special news coverage.
“When hearing the term ‘Special News,’ everyone froze,” he said.
“People suspected problems with Kim Jong Un when they heard the term. Nearby friends and factory workers also were nervous, saying something must be very wrong with the regime.”
The sources said that the tension of waiting for the announcement had left most people feeling “more empty than happy” about the news of the successful rocket launch.
They said that state media had announced successful satellite launches several times in the past, though never as a special news item, and were angered by the action which frightened many people.
Pyongyang has said it successfully put satellites into orbit, though international space and defense experts had never detected a North Korean satellite before last week’s launch.
Immediately following news of the successful launch, North Koreans were told by their superiors to stop their work and begin celebrating, a factory worker from North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service.
“On Dec. 12 during lunchtime, a factory executive came running out and told us that the satellite launch was successful,” the worker said.
“He ordered us to stop working and to go to a dance hall to dance, so we did until very late in the evening.”
Vehicles traveled throughout cities in the province, he said, broadcasting phrases such as, “The great nation has launched our own satellite!”
“I think the authorities ordered them to hold a grand scale celebration,” the source said.
“The reaction of the local people, however, was rather callous.”
He said those “forced” into celebrations were skeptical about what benefits such a launch would bring the public.
“People say that it might be a good thing for the officials, but that they, themselves, have no need for satellites,” the source said.
“They were told that the Kwangmyongsong-1 would be of great help to their lives, but nothing has changed for them,” he said, referring to the first satellite of North Korea’s space program, which was allegedly launched in 1998, although it has never been tracked.
The source said that North Koreans had been told they would be able to view the televised launch of the Kwangmyongsong-2 in 2009, “but since we didn’t have electricity, we couldn’t watch TV.”
Pyongyang also claimed that the Kwangmyongsong-2 had been successfully put into orbit, but the launch was widely seen as a failure outside of North Korea and no trace of the satellite has been found.
A university student from the city of Sinuiju, in North Pyongan province, said residents were also frustrated by orders from officials to join in a dancing celebration of last week’s launch outdoors in the midwinter cold.
“A number of young people were pressed into dancing during the afternoon, but their hands and feet were all so frozen that they could not enjoy it at all,” the student said.
He said that the west coast of North Korea had experienced 7 inches (18 centimeters) of snowfall on Dec. 5 and that morning temperatures in Sinuiju at the time of the launch were around 14 F (-10 C) on average.
The student said he couldn’t see what advantages the new satellite would bring to the people of North Korea, many of whom can barely feed themselves and their families due to widespread food shortages.
“They say that songs dedicated to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il come out of the Kwangmyongsong-3, but we all heard that story [about the first satellite] more than 10 years ago.”
Reported by Sung Hui Moon and Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.