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Failed rocket launch? What rocket launch?

After experiencing a critical failure, there has been almost no talk about the rocket that never entered orbit. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

PYONGYANG, North Korea – Quickly after the failed launch of the Kwangmyongsong-2 rocket, two things became abundantly clear: We, the foreign press corps brought in to cover the launch, knew far less about it than our colleagues outside of North Korea, and the only people we would be informing about anything today would be our government-assigned guides/minders.

Many of the foreign news crews – which have been in Pyongyang for about a week – had been assured multiple times by our minders that we would get the opportunity to witness the launch. Two large video screens installed in our little hotel newsroom late Thursday appeared to validate that belief.

Between scuttlebutt gleaned from our research and talks with North Korean space officials, many of us believed that our coverage would begin with an early wake-up call Friday morning from our minders whenever they got the word.

Instead, that wake-up call came not from any North Korean officials, but from NBC’s foreign news desk, prompting us to head down to the newsroom – the only place in the hotel where we can access the Internet – to confirm what was happening.

But what was there to report? Inside the newsroom, the video screens were blank, and local North Korean TV was not showing any rocket coverage. A section of the newsroom seemingly set-up as a post-launch podium for North Korean officials to answer questions was staffed by a disinterested minder.

Meanwhile, on Twitter and foreign news websites, initial reports of a botched launch were being followed up with details about the failure: the location of the debris, what the rocket looked like before it exploded and initial reaction from foreign governments on the incident.

Yet the North Koreans minders were idly chatting among themselves, completely oblivious to the botched launch that just happened, and apparently planning for just another day of guiding us on another highly orchestrated visit through the city.

The North Korean rocket launch fails as the world is watching. See NBC's Richard Engel first report shortly after learning the news in Pyongyang.

That sense was confirmed as I ran back and forth between the newsroom and the live shot positions outdoors. “Please be ready to go this morning for a music festival,” said one minder as he cornered me on a trip back to the newsroom.

“There is no way we’re going on that trip!” I replied. “You know the satellite launch failed today, right?”

My declaration was met with an incredulous stare before the minder slowly turned around and walked away. It was a scene replayed multiple times as minders, unsure what all the excitement was about, corralled journalists and had the news broken to them.

This led to a mass exodus of minders.

North Korea faces rocket reality: Failure is an option

Ironically though, at the one moment when we the press suddenly had the most freedom we’d had all trip, no one had the means to take advantage and begin covering the North Korean side of the launch.
As the pandemonium of the initial push to break news passed, many of us expected the North Koreans to call some sort of press conference to acknowledge the failure and explain what had gone wrong.

But the podium remained unused and the pokerfaced North Koreans in the room gave no hint that we would hear anything from the government about the launch failure. A terse statement on North Korean state television had acknowledged the rocket’s flop into the water to the public, but nothing else.

The lone statement was a great first step toward North Korea becoming a more open and possibly reflects a quiet confidence in the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un.

Kyodo / Reuters

Kim Jong-un (C), current leader of North Korea, reacts after fireworks were released during the unveiling ceremony of bronze statues of North Korea founder Kim Il-sung and late leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on Friday. North Korea said its much hyped long-range rocket launch failed on Friday, in a very rare and embarrassing public admission of failure by the hermit state.

Unlike his father, Kim Jong-il, who covered up past launch failures, the younger Kim has demonstrated a degree of assuredness in publicly acknowledging the rocket disaster to his people.

This certainly doesn’t mean that the country is turning over a new leaf – after all, the rocket test stunt itself shows that bad habits die hard, if at all. However, Kim’s concession suggests that this young, new leader may not strictly follow the game plan of his predecessors.

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