Joshua at One Free Korea suggests (update 4) that they had no choice but to get frank with the people, owing to what he calls the World Cup theory of information in a global era:
The interesting thing here is that the North Koreans have admitted that the launch failed, which is new for North Korea. In 1998, for example, another North Korean missile test failed, but the North Koreans claimed that that its rocket lifted a satellite into orbit to play “immortal revolutionary hymns” to Kim Il Sung. I suppose some will call this concession a sign of some new North Korean perestroika or Pyongyang Spring; we’ve seen a false dawns predicted for even less. On the other hand, this is a regime that has recently cracked down on border-crossing — punishments now are much more severe than they were just two years ago — and which still goes to great lengths to deceive foreign media.Although intriguing, I don't think the World Cup theory is an adequate explanation for the (relatively) immediate disclosure of failure. Setting aside the obvious non-parallels — even North Koreans play sports and they know that soccer tournaments always come with winners and losers such that a failure would be a likely outcome, unlike the heavily hyped satellite launch — there are other reasons to question that theory as the primary reason for full disclosure.
The more likely explanation is the same one that applies to North Korea’s decision to televise the World Cup live, only to have everyone with access to the broadcast see the North Korean team trounced. In North Korea, the groupthink probably favors boldness and punishes caution, conflating it with the denial of its own innate superiority. So North Korea gambled big that all of this hype would be a huge boost to its regime’s new figurehead on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, and it lost big. And unlike 1998, when the regime knew that the truth couldn’t get in, the regime is no longer capable of suppressing big news — and it is North Korea’s own regime that made this big news.
First, they continue to lie to the North Korean people about a number of things related to the regime, things that, à la the World Cup theory, would eventually be discovered by many to be false, so why be immediately honest about this? Unlike the World Cup outcome, it's not as if it's easy to provide evidence of a high-altitude fizzling of a satellite that would have been impossible to see even if it had succeeded. Ultimately, naysayers consuming outside media may have little more credibility or influence on the non-defecting hoi polloi than, say, a British or Russian media source touting the Obama birther stuff would have on a general American audience.
When it blew to bits, it was dozens of horizontal and vertical kilometers away from what was a sparsely populated area, so I doubt it was observable to ordinary North Koreans with their own eyes (think Challenger disaster and the high-tech stuff in 1986 that was needed to videotape or photograph that). Moreover, any explosion that would somehow be observed could easily be explained as going from stage 1 to stage 2 or some such. Again, no pressing need for the full disclosure.
Second, by shifting gears and not lying about this particular thing, it suggests the regime cares about what the people think about the regime itself. Perhaps care as in worry, and that is an increasingly real thing for the regime. But what it is they are hoping to prevent or to effect by the disclosure, I'm not sure, but one can speculate.
Anyway, if it's not the World Cup theory at work, it seems a possibility at least that some sort of perestroika or glasnost is going on up there. For those of you who are too young to recall a time when there'd never been a President Bush, perestroika was a buzzword from Russian that meant "restructuring" but came to be used as a synonym for openness (that was actually supposed to be glasnost), but that word seems to have been largely forgotten. Leonid Brezhnev proposed perestroika to reform the Soviet Union in 1979, and Mikhail Gorbachev ran with it, applying it to the economy and social institutions. He added glasnost as a policy in 1985.
Within four years, the tight grip Moscow had on Eastern Europe was loosened enough that communism collapsed almost everywhere, including the USSR. Notably, however, Deng Xiapoing's own forms of restructuring and openness were more measured and controlled, surviving internal strife and international condemnation in the spring of 1989, and the regime is still with us nearly a quarter century later. North Korea, if it is adopting any form of perestroika or glasnost, is probably trying to do so on its own terms, modeled closely on the Chinese.
But back to the particular event in question: The disclosure of failure of what was supposed to have been a glorious accomplishment for the North Korean people is, in and of it self, by no means a sign that perestroika or glasnost fever has gripped the regime. One event does not a trend make, and we'd have to see more of this kind of thing before we can start giving the DPRK kudos for taking a brighter path. Televising Western movies or broadcasting Team North Korea's abysmal showing at the World Cup in South Africa may be points on the curve as well (Peresnorka!).
It is my hope of hopes, but I don't think it's exactly unrealistic. (And it's not the first time I or anyone else have wondered if Kim Jong-un is North Korea's Gorbachev or North Korea's Deng Xiapoing.)
For naysayers like Joshua, I'll end this post with a few questions: First, if glasnost or perestroika were to occur right now or in the future, what do you think it would look like (a different question from what it should look like)? Second, if glasnost and perestroika were occurring right now or in the near future, might it not be in part because of the very Plan B that you have been pushing and that US President Obama seems to be implementing in some way?
Moreover, if it actually were occurring, would you be able to recognize it as such and even be willing to acknowledge it? The murderous Pyongyang regime has been so epically horrible and cruel to its people, and that makes it hard to imagine any change, but does the past make future change so unlikely that we can just ignore the possibility (while remaining very cautious)?
I forgot to add a preemptive rebuttal to those who would say that Kim et al would be crazy to allow glasnost or perestroika, lest they be booted out of office or worse, as in the case of Kim Ilsung's buddy Nicolai Ceausescu. But let's take a look at post-Deng China and post-Gorbachev Russia. In the former, the communists are still very much in power and the people live relatively much more freely, while some form of capitalism has brought a great deal of prosperity to the elite (and to many of the people) that didn't exist before.
Meanwhile, in Russia, there is also considerably more freedom, and the country has essentially been run since 1999 by Vladimir Putin, a former lieutenant colonel of the KGB. And while his predecessor Boris Yeltsin was not part of "the organs" like Putin, he was a former member of the Communist Party as well.
Indeed, if Pyongyang went the path of Moscow or Beijing, it's hard to imagine a scenario where someone would rise to power who wasn't part of the nappŭn nomenklatura, even if they were reform-minded.