SEOUL–A looming economic and security crisis is about to descend on North Korea in the wake of nuclear and missile tests conducted in quick succession over the last two months.

In response to the belligerent moves, thousands of US and South Korean troops are mobilizing for their annual combined military exercises, with the stated aim of not only repelling a future attack, but also decapitating the North’s top command chain in the early stages of a war.

And at the UN Security Council in New York, China – so far the North’s economic lifeline and only diplomatic backer – is changing course and appears ready to back tough US-sponsored sanctions imposing a global economic and military blockade.

Evidently, this is the gravest crisis facing North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un (who turned 33 or 34 in January, the North doesn’t say) since he took power upon the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011. According to analysts in Seoul, the North is preparing for a new round of “Arduous March” hardships — an allusion to an upcoming crisis period the regime expects to contend with. The last “Arduous March” occurred in 1995-2000 during which over a million North Koreans starved to death under economic mismanagement compounded by droughts and floods.

Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un

At the root of the crisis is Kim’s inability to strike his own path and discard the past policy of nuclear blackmailing and extortion. He also has trouble setting his own image and leadership in a nation so long drenched in the culture of absolute dictatorship and personality cult. In his fifth year in power, Kim is clearly on the way to repeating what his father and grandfather did – keeping tensions high as a means of keeping the country united behind him. Like his two predecessors, he will go on risking brinkmanship as long as such behavior pays.

But his nuclear brinkmanship is changing the old games, alarming not only his adversaries in Seoul and Washington, but also his chief benefactor Beijing. China fears the collapse of the Kim regime will ignite a war on the peninsula, which would then engulf China as it pursues a historic rise.

While Kim taps such fear mongering to get away with his nuclear gambits, South Korea is determined to put an end to it. Seoul is not responding to Kim’s threat to “nuclear fire bomb” the South with a begging bowl asking for peace talks. On the contrary, it has shuttered all the factories running inside the North Korean city of Kaesong, pulling out businessmen and effectively ending the only project designed to help the North Korean economy. Now, the last surviving channel of providing hard currency worth over $100 million annually in wages alone, has been shut down.

New sanctions have teeth

What could potentially be a far tougher blow is coming from China, on which the Pyongyang regime depends for half its food requirement and all of its million-ton energy needs. Following a Washington meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Beijing has reportedly agreed on a number of robust sanctions including ending aircraft fuel supplies (but presumably not other oil) and imports of anthracite coal from North Korea which alone is worth over $1.2 billion annually. Coupled with a dollar embargo from Seoul, removing revenues on this scale could gravely hurt North Korea. (It’s still not clear if China will send back some 50,000 North Koreans who work at Chinese factories; this too is a significant income source for the Kim regime which grabs all of their paychecks.)

China’s agreement to back such broad sanctions comes after a desperate attempt to keep a US anti-missile defense system from deploying in South Korea not far from its borders. Though this marks a major shift in Beijing’s position toward the Pyongyang regime, it’s a reluctant concession.

US-made Thaad launcher
US-made Thaad launcher

As for Seoul, it’s not clear at all if it will reverse its agreement to have a Terminal High Altitude Air Defense or Thaad system installed in its territory. China’s refusal early on to censure the North’s nuclear explosion has practically ended Seoul’s hope of using Beijing’s leverage to influence a change in Pyongyang’s course. Indeed, Seoul-Beijing relations have significantly eroded in the face of Chinese pressure to get Seoul to oppose the Thaad deployment.

The US-sponsored draft resolution is bristling indeed; the UN will require all cargo ships entering or leaving North Korean ports to be subject to mandatory search and inspection. Since 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China, the move implicitly seeks to criminalize official or private Chinese companies or banks secretly doing business or helping move foreign currencies for the Pyongyang regime. This so-called “secondary sanctions” clause — slapping those who deal clandestinely with the North – is aimed at Chinese firms who have kept the North economically and financially afloat.

The US business of Chinese companies would have been impacted even without the UN resolution. Other resolutions passed by the  US Congress make it mandatory for US to criminalize any companies that deal with North Korea.

Kim eyeing big provocation?

How all this weighs on Kim’s standing inside the North Korean regime is a source of great concern. This is especially true as things are coming to a head in advance of a party congress called for early May. If past regime behavior is any guide, Kim desperately needs to stage a striking provocation against the South in a gesture aimed at defying China, the US and South Korea.

But can Kim make a major provocation when China has stopped shipping aircraft fuel to the North? A fuel shortage would ground his air force — an essential defense shield for his country and a symbol of his personal pride. (Unlike father Kim Jong-il, he is not afraid of flying and has learned to pilot a plane himself). Recently, TV clips have shown him instructing fighter pilots to exercise on the ground, using model planes in their hands.

Other questions loom over Kim’s chances for survival. Under the circumstances, can he keep on purging old guards groomed by his father, as he seeks to establish a system personally beholden to him?

Kim has been extremely nervous over the past four years, aping to look like his grandfather. He goes out of his way to strike heroic and leader-like poses. In a reign of terror reminiscent of Stalinist times, Kim is resorting to a mass purges and executions. About 60 heads have rolled from the party, cabinet and army — most famously of his own uncle Jang Song Thaek, the regime’s No. 2 figure. (Knowledgeable South Korean intelligence specialists say Jang was killed by a firing squad in front of dignitaries invited to watch the event, and his bullet-ridden body was cremated with flame-throwers)

Vanishing brass hats

NK Gen. Ri Yong-gil
NK Gen. Ri Yong-gil

Is his reign of terror directed against potential traitors who could make trouble as the country enters its next round of “Arduous March”? In the pantheon of North Korea’s military establishment, five of the seven generals who bore his father’s coffin have disappeared. The last of four top brass to vanish being General Ri Yong-gil, the chief of staff of the Korean People’s Army; he was reportedly executed in early February for disobeying the party order.

Another prominent death, this one officially attributed to a car accident, is receiving new scrutiny in Seoul. Kim Yang-gon, 73, was a key party figure in charge of talks with South Korea under Kim Jong-il. Official statements said he died in an early morning car crash outside Pyongyang (renowned for sparse traffic) on Dec. 29. Various sources now believe he was murdered after gainsaying the top leader’s Jan. 6 nuclear test. His post has now been filled by General Kim Yong-chol, 67, a notorious hothead who’s credited with a string of daring provocations including the 2010 torpedo attack on the South Korean navy vessel Cheonan that killed 46 seamen.

If this appointment reflects Kim Jong-un’s mood, North Korea looks set to go through a period of internal instability. How China will cope with this challenge across its border is a nagging question. Much will depend on whether or not Beijing will actively involve itself in tempering Kim’s errant behavior and his dangerous regime.

Shim Jae Hoon is a distinguished Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review.

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