Analysis: AP bureau chiefs in Koreas on planned launch

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It's another big, splashy step for the North Korean government: a planned rocket launch the world will see as a banned test of long-range missile technology that comes only weeks after testing what it said was a hydrogen bomb.

How is this playing in Seoul, though? And in Pyongyang?

Here, Associated Press bureau chiefs responsible for both countries weigh in. In Seoul, Foster Klug. In Pyongyang, Eric Talmadge.

Talmadge has been Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013 and has covered Asian security issues for more than a decade. Klug has been leading coverage of South Korea as news editor and bureau chief since 2010, and covered North Korea for five years before that as a Washington-based Asia correspondent.



Wait. We're going to launch a rocket?

That was basically the response an Associated Press Television News crew got when they set out to get man-in-the-street reaction in Pyongyang the day after North Korea informed international organizations of its plan to put another satellite into orbit sometime this month.

The announcement, coming less than a month after what Pyongyang claims was its first H-bomb test, grabbed headlines all over the world — except, ironically, in North Korea. As of Friday, three days after the world got the news, it still hadn't been revealed to the North Korean public.

In possibly the world's most transparency-averse country, that's just par for the course.

When the time comes, and especially if the rocket succeeds, it will surely be milked for all it's worth. But it's no surprise Pyongyang hasn't trumpeted the plan just quite yet.

For even the most advanced space-faring nations, failures are a fact of life. And while rocket scientists see failures as an opportunity to learn and improve, they are nonetheless embarrassing. How Pyongyang will manage the launch coverage this time around is another one of those little mysteries that North Korea watchers love to get excited about.

Right now, we're still speculating. What can we predict?

North Korea is scheduled to hold a major ruling party congress in May. Kim Jong Un's ruling regime has been repeatedly touting the importance of scientific achievements and advancement as one of North Korea's primary goals. A successful nuclear test and satellite launch would be two big feathers in his cap going into that forum. So there's that.

On the flip side, even if the launch goes well and the state media switches into full propaganda mode, it's pretty safe to assume that not much ink will be spilled on how it has been widely criticized by the United States and its allies and is banned under U.N. resolutions — and how that could lead to more sanctions that might have a tangible and negative impact on the daily lives of North Korea's people.

If that issue is broached, it will most likely be framed as yet another example of how the U.S. imperialist aggressor and its shameless puppets, hell-bent on keeping North Korea down, are unjustly trying to deny the country its fundamental right to have its own space program.

How much the average North Korean believes that, or even cares what with all the difficulties of day-to-day life, especially outside of the relative affluence of Pyongyang, is hard to gauge.

But it's very clear how the North Korean leadership wants them to see it — as a symbol of the country's technological successes and a matter of great national pride.

Putting a satellite in orbit is, after all, no small feat. And if this one works, the score on that front will be North Korea 2, South Korea 0.



Another big North Korea news story, another collective yawn from South Koreans.

Many in the South either don't know or don't care about their rival's declared plan to launch a rocket this month.

This may puzzle outsiders, given that much of the North's 1.2 million-strong army and its artillery are within easy striking distance of Seoul's 10 million souls.

The media here cover the story aggressively. The people who are paid to care — analysts and politicians — voice outrage and worry. But there is a marked contrast between that sort of attention and what ordinary South Koreans are interested in.

A couple days after the North's announcement, it wasn't even among the top 10 most searched for stories on Naver, South Korea's biggest search engine. South Koreans were more intrigued by a local soccer player scoring his first goal with a Portuguese club, for instance, and rapper Psy's battles with his tenants.

This is partly because South Koreans have grown inured to the North's repeated threats, and also because they have a vibrant, ultracompetitive society to distract them. But it also stems from the complicated feelings North Korea can produce here.

The people on both sides of the world's most heavily armed border share the same ethnicity, food, language and, before their division at the end of WWII into an American-backed south and a Soviet-backed north, the same long history as a small, proud country regularly battered by big surrounding powers.

So when North Korea provokes the world, there's some shame and embarrassment. But there's also a tendency to cut the North some slack, even some grudging admiration in the ability of a Third World autocracy's ability to regularly command the attention of superpowers China and the United States.

There used to be fear. When Pyongyang first threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" in 1994, South Koreans cleaned out markets in preparation for an impending attack.

Now, there's mostly just apathy.

Brian Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea, wrote after the 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that killed 46 sailors, including a student at Myers' school, that he "was struck by how few people on our campus evinced any real anger toward" the North, which was blamed for torpedoing the ship. "This lack of indignation is mainstream here."

South Koreans certainly have the capacity for collective outrage.

Tens of thousands have filled the streets in past anti-American protests, for instance. In the wake of a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300, pop stars canceled concerts and a widespread soul searching about safety issues and responsibility seemed to infuse the population for weeks.

But while small groups of right-wingers can be relied on for protests, many South Koreans simply ignore the kinds of North Korea stories that captivate the wider world.


Talmadge reported from Tokyo. Follow Foster Klug, AP's Seoul bureau chief, on Twitter: