N. Koreans vow loyalty to regime after launch flop

Tens of thousands of people gathered in a football stadium Saturday to shout support for North Korea's ruling dynasty, a day after a failed rocket launch seen as a major embarrassment for the regime.

In spring sunshine, bemedalled soldiers, women in colourful hanbok gowns and men in dark suits and ties packed Kim Il-Sung Stadium to hear fulsome praise for the family that has headed the nation since its founding in 1948.

"Let's safeguard Kim Jong-Un with our lives!" they shouted, referring to the young man proclaimed as "great successor" after his father Kim Jong-Il died last December.

The event was the latest in a series marking the centenary of the birth on April 15 of founding leader Kim Il-Sung, father of Jong-Il.

Celebrations will culminate Sunday with a massive rally and probably a military parade in the huge city centre square named after the first leader.

The festivities are designed to build loyalty to the dynasty and especially to the untested leader, aged in his late 20s.

He sat under a giant portrait of his grandfather as the ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-Nam extolled the family's achievements in a lengthy and passionate speech.

"The achievement of our great leader Kim Jong-Il, who turned our country into a proud nuclear-armed state, will be admired forever," Kim Yong-Nam said.

"It is our greatest honour to hold respected leader Kim Jong-Un high at the top of our party, state and military."

But several analysts see the launch flop as a damaging setback.

"Inviting many foreign media, North Korea has become an object of public ridicule in the world," Masao Okonogi of Tokyo's Keio University told IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.

The North issued visas to about 150 journalists to witness preparations for what it called a peaceful satellite launch and the anniversary celebrations.

But there has been only brief mention of the failure of the launch, which was seen by the United States and its allies as a disguised ballistic missile test.

One person interviewed by AFP at the stadium through an official guide was unaware of the failure. Two others said their country would succeed soon in putting a satellite into orbit.

"Failure is the mother of success," said Jong Dae-Chol, a commerce ministry deputy director. Kim Tae-Sung, an officer in the 1.2 million-strong military, used the same phrase.

As for the new leader, "he is a really caring person", said Kim Yong-Suk.

"I'm convinced our future will be bright and we will become a powerful and prosperous nation," she said, referring to the regime's stated goal by 2012.

In reality, "the North Korean economy today is characterised by macroeconomic instability, widening inequality and growing corruption," said Marcus Noland, of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Outside observers, he wrote in an op-ed piece, believe per capita income today is lower than it was 20 years ago, partly because of a disastrous currency reform in November 2009.

Severe food shortages have persisted since a famine in the 1990s but the rocket launch has cost the North 240,000 tonnes of US food aid.

After a visit last autumn, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos reported "terrible levels" of malnutrition, especially among children.

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