Instead of launching a satellite that was supposed to beam the song of General Kim Il-sung from space, the missile launched by North Korea on Friday lasted less than two minutes before exploding in 20 pieces and falling into the Yellow Sea. Rod Stewart’s I Am Sailing would have been a safer bet to take on board. The question on every analyst’s mind was how North Korea’s military would express its humiliation. Few were in much doubt that the next riposte in this war of symbols would come from the military, but what would it be? A launch of another rocket, a military exercise next to the demilitarised zone, a third nuclear test?

North Korea’s first reaction took everyone by surprise: it publicly admitted that the rocket had failed to enter orbit. This must have come from Kim Jong-un himself, newly graced with the title of chairman of the national defence commission. On this reading, the decision to launch the rocket was not his, but his father’s. Furthermore, the new leader has been fashioned to look like a chip off the old block, not so much his father’s son, but the spitting image of his grandfather, the centenary of whose birth will be celebrated with great fanfare this weekend. Even if he had wanted to, he could not have stopped a project into which so much money – an estimated $850m – had been ploughed.

The public admission may not be good news for those deemed responsible for the rocket failure – the party official blamed for the doomed currency revaluation was executed – but it may mean there is a livelier debate going on about the merits of this project than anyone had imagined.

The next time Pyongyang makes a grand gesture, it may feel more constrained.

But that could be overly optimistic. The pessimistic reading is that the hardliners won their way only weeks after completing an agreement with Washington to receive food aid in return for Pyongyang’s agreement to suspend uranium enrichment and stop test launchings of long-range missiles. The poverty of their people, who regularly suffer famines, means nothing to them and they are prepared to sacrifice food aid and the possibility of detente, for the doomed attempt to build a missile that can reach the Alaskan coast. Prestige means all.

The truth may lie somewhere between the two extremes. As a former state department official has written, it is easily forgotten that the US has done quite well out of its negotiations with Pyongyang. The North so neglected its nuclear programme after the 1994 framework agreement was signed, that when it fell apart, it only had a fraction of the fissile material it should have had. This is a long game and it needs patience.

–Guardian editorial