NUCLEAR BRINK

North Korea May Be Committing Suicide, But Who Will Kim Take With Him?

After the latest nuke test and missile launch, even China is imposing draconian sanctions on Kim Jong Un. And if he strikes at South Korea, Seoul plans to hit back.

03.08.16 4:52 PM ET

On Monday, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea threatened to carry out a “pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice” on the United States, U.S. bases in the Pacific, and South Korea.

“If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas [of] flames and ashes in a moment,” the National Defense Commission said in a statement.

Is this bluster, Pyongyang-style? Yes. North Korea is not planning to launch nukes at this moment. But the regime of Kim Jong Un looks ready to strike at its neighbors or the U.S., and a strike could trigger conflict on the Korean peninsula and beyond.

“Strategic patience,” the name given to the American policy of the last half-decade, is no more. In the wake of the North’s Jan. 6 detonation of a nuclear device, its fourth, and the Feb. 7 launch of its long-range rocket, a disguised ballistic missile test, the international community is countering Kim’s provocative moves with tough measures.

For instance, on Tuesday South Korea slapped unilateral sanctions on 40 individuals and 30 entities believed connected to North Korean weapons programs, making good on President Park Geun-hye’s public threat in the middle of last month to adopt “stronger and more effective measures” to “speed up regime collapse.”

Seoul’s move follows the UN Security Council’s adoption on March 2 of Resolution 2270. The vote was unanimous, including veto-wielding China, and these are the UN’s fifth set of punitive rules imposed on the rogue state.

President Barack Obama signed HR 757, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, on Feb. 18, tightening sanctions further. Japan extended a ban on North Korean ships entering its ports and adopted other coercive measures. At the same time, South Korea ordered the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just north of the Demilitarized Zone, depriving Pyongyang of about $120 million a year in revenue.

The South Korean reaction is particularly striking. “For more than 20 years, Seoul has tried to seek peace and rapprochement with the Kim regime, through unconditional trade, investment, and aid during the Sunshine Policy decade, or through forwarding far-reaching proposals for national reconciliation, such as President Park Geun-hye’s ‘trustpolitik,’” Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea told The Daily Beast.

Now, however, Seoul is leading the charge against Pyongyang in what David Maxwell of Georgetown University suggests is “a campaign of strategic strangulation.”

In the past, South Korea’s attempted engagement of the Kimist state gave cover to China, allowing it to continue its financial support of the North’s horrific regime. But with the closure of Kaesong, Beijing was put on the spot as the only party propping up Pyongyang.

Even before the Security Council passed Resolution 2270, the UN’s harshest sanctions on North Korea, Chinese officials acted. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China’s largest bank, reportedly froze the accounts of North Korean customers in Dandong, the Chinese city across the Yalu River from the North. It appears Bank of China, China Merchants Bank, and Bank of Dandong also dropped North Koreans.

After 2270, China put 31 of Pyongyang’s vessels on a “blacklist” and prevented one of them from docking. Two others are now sailing away from Chinese ports.

Because at least 75 percent of the North’s trade is with China, Beijing could bring down its ally if it continues to enforce the Security Council’s new measures.

The Kim regime, therefore, could be confronted with “an existential crisis,” Scarlatoiu says. Wu Dawei, China’s always discreet point man on North Korea, seems to agree. In comments made a few days ago to Pulse News, a South Korean site, he said the North “signed its own death warrant.”

The Kimster, therefore, has much to think about. One thing we know: He’s not going to sit back and accept his demise. So what will he do?

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In the first instance, he will certainly employ his family’s time-worn strategies to evade the new UN, American, South Korean, and Japanese measures. Bruce Bechtol, the author of North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era, notes in an email to The Daily Beast that Kim’s officials will employ “a variety of third party individuals, often-changing and shady front companies, and complicit banks to conduct their transactions that occur outside the international system.”

And the North can get by even if its ties to banks are cut. Joshua Stanton, the blogger behind the One Free Korea site, told me that the regime “may try to move payments through non-bank institutions and cash smugglers, or in the form of gold, bitcoins, and stored-value cards.” North Korean diplomats in fact ferried cash in suitcases after the U.S. Treasury in 2005 designated Banco Delta Asia, a Macau bank Pyongyang used as a front, a “primary money laundering concern,” therefore axing it from the global financial system.

Countries know that the multitude of recently imposed measures can sever Kim’s critical lifeline of cash and therefore risk forcing him to lash out. Yet they nonetheless pushed forward with sanctions because they had, as Maxwell hinted in a recent article, reached “the breaking point.”

But what happens when the DPRK, as the regime calls itself, breaks as well? As Robert Collins, a 37-year veteran analyst for the Defense Department, told The Daily Beast, North Korea has already expressed its displeasure with the recent sanctions by stepping up its information warfare campaign, launching cyber attacks, and demonstrating its military firepower.

The next step, Collins points out, is a “kinetic provocation,” such as another artillery barrage along the Northern Limit Line, the sea border off the west coast of the Korean peninsula. There could also be an attack on one of the islands there by the North’s special operations forces.

South Korean doctrine these days, Maxwell notes, is a “decisive military response at the time and place of the provocation.” That, for many reasons, is the proper response.

Such effective countermeasures run the risk of escalation leading to a conflict engulfing North Asia and beyond. But after years of not effectively reacting to the killing of its citizens, Seoul knows it now must take risks and punish provocations. For South Korea—and therefore its ally the United States—there are at this moment only exceedingly dangerous choices.

That is why this North Korean crisis looks different from those in the past.