North Korea’s rocket: Up close and personal

Story highlights

North Korea says it plans to launch a rocket carrying a satellite this month

Journalists, including group from CNN, invited to inspect rocket launch facility

North Korea insists this is a peaceful launch, the satellite for scientific research

U.S. and its allies fear this is a step towards perfecting a long range missile

Tongchang-ri, North Korea CNN  — 

“What’s more important, food or satellites?”

This isn’t a question our smiling North Korean official was exactly prepared for. Suddenly, he wasn’t smiling any more; a moment so carefully choreographed was in unscripted territory.

“Please will you answer the question,” I persist. “Isn’t it more important to feed your people?”

The news briefing was over; our official turned and was ushered out of the room.

This had been the day the notoriously secretive country was pulling back the veil on its planned rocket launch they say will put a small satellite into orbit.

Defiant North Korea displays rocket

North Korea insists this is a peaceful launch, the satellite for scientific research. The United States and its allies are more dubious. To much of the world this country, still technically at war, is taking yet another step towards perfecting a long range missile that could strike American cities.

“I’m very disturbed by these claims,” the head of the launch site says.

Can you deny it is a missile? I ask.

“Look for yourself,” he replies. “Does it look like a missile to you? This is why we invited you here.”

True, North Korea has taken an historic step. This is unprecedented access, bringing media from around the world to a highly sensitive site that had been hidden from view. As I step from our train, the launch pad and rocket are clearly visible nestled against a hill in the distance.

Up close, we get the grand tour. Not only taken to the base of the rocket itself, but to the control center and the small satellite North Korea maintains will be fired into orbit.

This is not the first time this reclusive nation has carried out such tests. There was a failed launch in 2006 and another slightly more successful in 2009. Still, analysts say along with its nuclear program, Pyongyang has continued refining its missile technology. A successful launch this time, warn international observers, would show that North Korea could deliver an object anywhere on the planet.

After the death of the so-called Dear Leader, Kim Jong il, last December there were brief flickers of hope his son and successor Kim Jong Un, still under 30, may begin to reform the country. U.S envoys sat down with North Korean officials in Beijing in February and promptly announced a new food aid deal. But this launch has scuttled any optimism.

Analysis: Solving the Pyongyang problem

As we make the five hour train journey to the launch site at Tongchang-ri, we get a rare glimpse through the window of a country long dubbed “the hermit kingdom.” It is a barren landscape. People move slowly here. There is little sign of livestock, the odd cow, some goats, barely even a dog. In the distance figures can be seen chipping at the harsh ground in a land that doesn’t offer up enough to keep the people fed.

It takes no imagination to grasp the impact of decades of suffering on these people. Forged in war, they have endured devastating famine and the iron grip of now three generations of Kim family rule. This is what brings me to my original question. How can a country that has to go to the international community for food aid afford to spend so much on satellites, missiles or nukes?

I won’t get the answer to that here today. But to understand is to look to the soul of the country and its hardline military.

In North Korea the army comes first. This regime’s legitimacy doesn’t rest on feeding people, its survival rests on an aura of invincibility; convincing its people it can repel any invader. Kim Jong Un’s fate rests on the power of his arsenal, and like his father and grandfather before him, no price is too high.