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ANALYSIS-North Korea Kim Jong-il's fortunes soar on rocket

(For full coverage of the missile crisis, click [ID:nSP469853])

SEOUL, April 6 (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has a stronger hand to squeeze concessions from global powers and keep his iron grip in place over the destitute state after launching a long-range rocket on Sunday, analysts said.

The launch was a high-stakes gamble for Kim, 67, whose stroke last August raised the first serious questions in years about his ability to lead and whether there was anyone waiting in the wings to replace him as the head of Asis's only communist dynasty.

Even though U.S. and South Korean officials said the launch was technically a failure because it did not send a satellite into space, as the North said it did, it still appears to be a boon for Kim, who has been lauded in his state's media.

"Pride among North Koreans stemming from what they believe to be a successful launch would help keep his regime intact ... creating a better atmosphere for Kim to hand over the power to his successor," said Koh Yu-hwan, a Dongguk University professor of North Korea studies and an expert on the state's ideology.

The North's power elite has been in a state of flux over the past few months, with sweeping changes to the cabinet and powerful military. A new parliament was elected last month to sit for five years, which ushered in a new pecking order in its ruling communist Workers' Party of Korea.

Analysts said the new government line-up may have been considering a post-Kim era, especially after recent pictures showed him looking frail. But it may now be looking to cement his legacy ahead of major celebrations planned for 2012.

Kim, who has been mostly absent from state functions since his illness, is supposed to re-emerge on Thursday for the annual meeting of the rubber stamp Supreme People's Assembly, basking in patriotic glory from the missile launch.

"The timing of the launch was designed to coincide with the start of Kim's new mandate and to herald what the North's propaganda calls 'a great prosperous powerful nation' the country aims to build by 2012," Koh said.

The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the birthday of state founder and Kim's father, Kim Il-sung. The country will use it to showcase its communist system, which experts said is designed to keep the Kim family in power.

"With the launch, Kim Jong-il has more time to ponder succession while remaining in full control," said Paik Hak-soon, director at the Center for North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute, near Seoul.

INTERNATIONAL LEVERAGE

Kim has given no indication as to which of his three known sons, all educated overseas and mostly unknown to the average North Korean, might succeed him.

Even if he does not anoint an heir, his system will likely endure after his death in the form of collective leadership, perhaps aligned around one of his sons or powerful cadres such as his brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, analysts said.

While basking in praise at home, Kim has drawn global scorn from the United States, South Korea and Japan, which say he used the satellite launch as a cover for a long-range missile test, violating U.N. resolutions.

Despite the prospect of rebuke and punishment, analysts said the launch helps the North's tested strategy of using military threat to wring concessions by adding a new missile card to play.

"The more importance we attach to this test, the more negotiating leverage the North Koreans will create for themselves," said William Tobey, at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

The launch may have also changed the dynamics of six-way talks on ending Pyongyang's atomic ambitions, experts said, which could lead it to try to water down its existing obligations and resist calls from the five dialogue partners to agree to a nuclear inspection system.

The North's broken down economy produces few goods wanted by the outside world, except weapons. Despite sanctions, North Korea has been able to generate large sums of hard cash through missile sales, with reports saying Iran is a major customer.

It is too early to say if a launch that appeared to be a partial success will entice foreign buyers, who South Korean media said were on hand to watch the launch.

But Peter Beck, an expert on Korean affairs at American University in Washington, said ahead of the launch: (A success) is the best possible advertisement they could make to let the rogues of the world know that they have a missile that they might want to buy." (Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun)

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