Where' s the exit for Pyongyang?

Peter Sylvestre's picture

EVEN China has become an ‘enemy state’ in the shrill rhetoric being spouted by a belligerent North Korea. But is it a symptom of fear felt by the young leadership as China, and to a lesser extent, Russia, join in world isolation of the Hermit Kingdom . . .

SEOUL — Although the Korean peninsula has entered the cool temperate season of fall, relations between the two Koreas have either entered the deepest of freezes or boiled over, depending on one’s metaphor.
Pyongyang’s Kimist regime, which has been hell-bent on persuading the United States that it really and truly presents a clear and present danger, finally provoked rhetoric nearly (but not quite) equal to its own.
Following North Korea’s fifth nuclear test (on September 9), which at the equivalent of 10KT was its largest (and created a 5.3 seismic shock), Lim Ho-yeong, Chief of Strategy and Planning for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs,
revealed the existence of the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan.“
The concept envisions responding to
damage caused by a North Korean nuclear weapon by targetting the North Korean leadership, including its military headquarters, in a punitive and retaliatory strike,” he said.
  On September 21, South Korea’s Defence Minister, Han Min-koo, responded to a question posed in the National Assembly as to whether the ROK has plans to remove Kim Jong-un.
“Yes,” was the reply. “If it becomes clear the enemy is moving to attack the South with
nuclear missiles.”
However, various analysts have noted that this plan seems to be a rehash of the ROK’s Decapitation plan announced last year.
It had taken increasingly shrill rhetoric (Kim John Un declared a visually impressive but
militarily farcical large-scale demonstration of massed North Korean long range artillery “the beginning of the merciless retaliatory campaign to put the most miserable end to the Park Geun Hye group of south Korea”), and continuous testing of both missiles and nuclear devices through the first nine months of 2016 to provoke South Korea to this point.
The DPRK has persistently engaged in a
deliberate and intentional campaign to amplify its threat capacity.
The North Korean National Defence Commission’s April 3 pronouncement of its capacity to launch a “retaliatory nuclear strike at the US Mainland at any moment” in response to the “US hostile forces’ frantic racket to stifle the DPRK” that had reached an “unprecedented phase” was merely a start.
Since proclaiming on January 6 this year that it had tested a hydrogen bomb, a claim largely dismissed by experts, North Korea has steadily sought to enhance the credibility of its nuclear threat by launching its long range Kwangmyongsong (Bright Star) 4 satellite booster (February 7); proclaiming (March 9) success in miniaturising a nuclear warhead, presumably to be fitted to the former; testing two
medium-range missiles (March 18) and launching (unsuccessfully) a mid-range Musodan (April 15), followed by two more of the same (April 28).

The Musodan launches, although considered failures,
incurred still further wrath from the UN
Security Council. More Musodan missile test launches were conducted on May 30, June 21 (one of the two launched flew for 400 km), August 3 (the
medium range Nodong landed 200 miles off
Japan’s coast in its EEZ), and September 5 (three simultaneous medium-range missiles flew 1,000 km).
The apparent launch of a ballistic missile from a submarine on April 23 that travelled 30 km (condemned the next day by the UN Security Council) was sufficient to alarm senior U.S. military officials, although footage of a submarine missile launch on May 9 was deemed by analysts to have been falsified.
However, that was followed on August 23 by a third submarine-launched missile. The solid-fuelled, cold-launched Pukkuksong-1 missile flew 500 km into Japan’s ADIZ, raising the prospect that the Korean People’s Navy could be developing a second-strike capability.
Notably, this flurry of tests resulted in UN
Security mandates to all member States to fully implement sanctions. More annoyingly to
China and Russia, it induced South Korea to
accept deployment of the US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system,
ostensibly designed to counter incoming short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Also from April, Kim Jong Un observed a guided missile anti-aircraft test and attended an ICBM engine test.
North Korea is so determined to press on with its nuclearised military strategy that it is willing even to take on China, at least rhetorically, in defying the sanctions.
To drive home the point that the DPRK is not happy with UN sanctions, China itself is no longer immune from the vitriolic bombasts that the U.S. so patiently tolerated for decades.
At the end of March, Daily NK, a website dedicated to monitoring North Korea, published a memo dated March 10 purportedly from the ruling Workers’ Party of (North) Korea (WPK) to provincial WPK secretaries, “openly lashing out against China” and ordering that “all Party members and workers must join in soundly crushing China’s pressuring schemes with the force of a nuclear storm for its betrayal of socialism”.
Never mindful of historical realities, it ranted: “China had never once been sincere towards the North, especially when its revolutionary
efforts ran into challenges and struggles.”
Warning that “Just as our Great Leaders have taught us, we must not have even the smallest fantasies about China’s intentions”, the document denounced China as an “enemy state” and asserted that “we must no longer go easy on the Chinese”. A day later, Kim Jong Un
announced that the DPRK “should prepare itself to be able to launch a nuclear attack on enemies” by land, air and sea.

Sanctions Begin to Bite
This increasingly shrill, aggressive tone, straining the very limits of linguistic superlatives, may be more than rhetoric. Rather, it may be a symptom of the real fear felt by the reportedly unpopular (among the elite) young leadership — Kim Jong Un and his reportedly influential sister, Kim Yeo Jung — of the greatly stiffened international isolation that is now joined by China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.
On March 2, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2270 calling upon all States to “inspect cargo within or transiting through their territory… destined for or originating from” the DPRK. Airports, seaports, free trade zones and even ships are specifically mentioned. UN member States are also
“enjoined from leasing ships and aircraft to, or allowing their flag to be used by, the DPRK, whose aircraft engaged in sanctions evading transportation are to be denied overflight and landing privileges”.
The Council also sanctioned DPRK-sourced coal, iron and iron ore, gold, titanium ore and rare earth minerals, and said that “all States should prohibit their nationals from procuring such materials”.
The sanctions went further: “All States should prevent the sale or supply of aviation fuel — including aviation gasoline, naphtha-type jet fuel, kerosene-type jet fuel, and
kerosene-type rocket fuel — whether or not originating in their own territory, to the
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”  
Previously, Beijing
either rejected sanctions or withheld co-operation. This time, China appears to be fully complying. On March 9, Reuters reported that the PRC’s Ministry of Transport was already turning away the 31 vessels (many apparently under false flags) listed in the Security Council resolution as being either managed by or doing business with the previously (2014) sanctioned DPRK firm, Ocean Management Co. Ltd. (OMM).
One bright note for Pyongyang, however, may be China’s exemption of otherwise sanctioned coal and iron imports from North Korea hinted at by Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hong Lei, on March 4:
“China has been faithfully fulfilling its international obligations. We will earnestly observe the UNSCR 2270. The resolution prohibits the DPRK’s export of coal, iron ore and iron, but those that are deemed essential for people’s livelihood and have no connection with the funding of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile
programs will not be affected.”
In short, the Devil is in the detail as to how much the US$3 billion in iron ore and coal
exports of North Korea’s US$7 billion total trade with China will be affected (2014 figures as
reported by The Diplomat, which presumably includes imports, thereby magnifying North Korean export figures).
Russia’s compliance has been far more opaque and uneven, at least initially.
Unlike China, Russia continued to allow OMM-affiliated vessels to visit Far East ports, However, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei
Lavrov, also strongly denounced North Korea’s nuclear programme, and Gazprom, which has backed away from a pipeline through North
Korea, reportedly suspended all business with North Korea soon after the sanctions were imposed to avoid being sanctioned itself, according to RIA Novosti.
On May 19, the
Russian Central Bank ordered all Russian banks to suspend financial transactions with North Korea. A Russian Presidential decree closing all North Korean bank branches and joint ventures in Russia was anticipated.
South Korea has also undertaken firm measures to enforce economic sanctions. On March 8, it announced it would deny entry to any vessel that had entered a North Korean port within the previous 180 days. This alone sufficed to scupper the Khasan-Rajin rail project (reported earlier in ATI), in which Russian coal was to be transported overland to North Korea and then sent by sea to South Korea.
Russia’s Ministry of Reunification reported in mid-May that the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which accounted for 99.6 per cent of inter-Korean trade, had sent that trade to “near zero”.

The Conundrum
With North Korean foreign trade plummeting given Chinese, Russian and South Korean compliance with sanctions, the spectre of famine in the North is once again materialising. By late March, the official Rodong Sinmun was reportedly (DPRK media is censored in the Republic of Korea and vice versa), warning: “The road to the revolution is long and arduous. We may have to go on an arduous march during which we have to chew the roots of plants once again.”
Given that North Korea must import 440,000 tons of food annually, but only managed to
import 17,000 tons by the time sanctions were imposed, according to South Korea’s newspaper of record, Chosun Ilbo, and that North Korea suffered the worst drought in a century last year, the country is entering into potentially its most “perfect storm” of international and
economic constraints at a time when its leadership is the least prepared, experienced or
solidified to ride out the storm.    

The DPRK Management Team

In the face of this gathering storm, the DPRK held its Seventh Workers’ Party Congress on May 5 (36 years after the sixth). This was widely
assumed to be an attempt to finally cement the rule of the (approximately) 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, five years after he ostensibly assumed power.
Preparation for the Workers’ Party Congress may have induced Kim (or his advisors) to
undertake the fourth nuclear test in January and the missile launch in February. If so, it is ironic that the two theatrical acts were the final straws that led to the perfect sanctions storm that now threatens the very regime these acts were designed to bolster.
On a side note, Kim’s younger sister, the 29-year-old Kim Yeo Jeong, was expected to
obtain the equivalent of a Ministerial position.
Whether the reconstituted leadership, limited in experience, is up to the challenge of navigating the ship of state through the uncharted
turbulence of a perfect storm remains to be seen.

Plan B, given the united international front?

The North Korean regime has been single-mindedly driving toward establishing what can only be described as a credible nuclear deterrence in a desperate attempt to preserve a
regime that has no long-term plan for viability — but in so doing may have set in motion the very forces it sought to forestall.
It now finds itself with precious few options outside the unlikely prospect of developing a credible nuclear deterrence. However, given that the USSR had that and more and still imploded ought to give it room for thought as to what its exit (or end-game) strategy is.
On an intriguing note, its National Defence Commission in early April, while railing against “unilateral sanctions”, said “preparing steps for negotiations” may be more productive than sheer military power per se. The regime may be learning, but is it too little and too late?