Just four months in the saddle, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has taken a major gamble with his botched rocket launch, facing the risk of being alienated by his impoverished people who will now be deprived of critical food aid, experts say.
Kim's plan to blast a satellite into orbit to commemorate his late grandfather's 100th birthday fell flat on its face as the rocket broke up a couple of minutes after takeoff and crashed into the sea.
It was the first major challenge for the untested Kim, in his late 20's and fresh from taking over the helm in December following his dictator father Kim Jong Il's death.
The junior Kim had wanted to ride on the satellite plan to display leadership and begin moving out of his father's shadow.
But it turned out to be an embarrassment as the wide publicity ahead of the rocket launch forced his regime to make a rare admission to the people that the mission had failed.
"The embarrassment to the new regime cannot be overstated," said Jack Pritchard, who was among senior U.S. government officials who had previously negotiated with North Korea to end its illicit nuclear weapons program.
"The failure will cast a dark shadow over the most important celebratory day in North Korean history. The credibility and perhaps the survivability of the regime are at stake," said Pritchard, now the President of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute.
He expects the Kim regime will conduct a third nuclear test in a bid to redeem itself.
"Unlike a missile launch that is observable and is either a success or failure, a nuclear detonation, regardless of yield, can be touted as an absolute success," he said.
The U.N. Security Council has already "deplored" North Korea's defiant but unsuccessful rocket launch, and Ban Ki Moon, the global body's secretary-general, urged Pyongyang not to undertake any further provocative actions that would heighten tension in the region.
Ensuing international tensions from Pyongyang's rocket move and a likely follow-up nuclear test could even spur Kim Jong Un to undertake more provocative military actions, said Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at The Heritage Foundation.
"The new, untested dictator is more likely than his father Kim Jong Il to miscalculate during a crisis, unaware that Seoul is more likely to retaliate to a military clash than in the past," Klingner said.
According to recent South Korean intelligence, satellite imagery indicated that Pyongyang is excavating a new tunnel at its Punggye-ri test site, in the northeast of the country, where the two previous tests were carried out in October 2006 and May 2009.
The information shows what looks like preparations for a third nuclear test, analysts said.
Shrugging off the botched rocket launch, however, Kim Jong Un appeared at a ceremony attended by tens of thousands of people crowding a central area in Pyongyang to honor new large statues of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the nation's founding president, and Kim Jong Il.
The ceremony, televised live, coincided with the announcement that Kim Jong Un was elected "first chairman" of the powerful National Defence Commission, apparently a new title.
Kim Jong Il was named "eternal" chairman of the commission, the country's top decision-making body, at an annual session of the parliament, state media said.
Kim Jong Un has practically assumed all top posts previously held by his father, including supreme commander of the country's 1.2 million-strong army.
Most North Koreans interviewed by RFA were dissatisfied with the news that the rocket did not enter into orbit in a bid to, according to the Kim regime, study crops and weather patterns.
Some residents expressed frustration because they believed that the rocket failure carried an ominous sense of foreboding, instead of promoting the "strong and prosperous nation" which was excessively advertised by North Korean authorities.
“Even Pyongyang residents [are making] fun of Kim Jong Un as a person playing with fire” and that “since the rocket launch has been advertised as a plan made by Kim Jong Un’s direct order, the failure just has reverse effects,” a North Korean visiting China told RFA.
Some of the North Koreans RFA spoke to before the launch had been shocked to learn that it would cost, according to some estimates, about U.S. $850 million—enough to feed most of the North's 24 million people for a year.
Kim Jong Un's decision to launch the rocket has also cost valuable aid to alleviate a food shortage in North Korea.
The White House said Friday it will not go forward with planned food aid because North Korea has violated a February bilateral agreement in which Pyongyang agreed to a partial nuclear freeze and a missile and nuclear test moratorium in return for 240,000 tons of U.S. food shipments.
"Their efforts to launch a missile clearly demonstrate that they could not be trusted to keep their commitments," White House National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes said.
"It’s the North Korean government that is holding its own people hostage because, frankly, we can't trust them to implement an agreement and to make sure that the assistance gets to those who need it," he said.
Reported by Young Jung for RFA's Korean service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English with additional reporting by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.