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Risky Business: Pyongyang’s Dangerous Gamble

March 2, 2016. The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution to impose sanctions on the DPRK in order to curb the country's nuclear and missile programs. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)

March 2, 2016. The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution to impose sanctions on the DPRK in order to curb the country’s nuclear and missile programs. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)

Facing New Sanctions

After a long and intense round of negotiations, China has finally withdrawn its opposition, joining in the UN Security Council’s unanimous decision to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea in response to its recent nuclear and ballistic missile test.  According to the new sanctions, all cargos going to and from the DPRK are subject to mandatory inspections, as in the recent case involving the Filipino authorities seizure of the 6,800 tons cargo Jing Teng and deportation of its crew.

Moreover, North Korean diplomats involved in notoriously fraudulent schemes aiming at raising foreign currency or collecting luxury goods to appease the North Korean elites will be promptly expelled. Shorty after the UN Security Council’s decision, the European Union also decided to implement restrictive measures against Pyongyang, adding 16 individuals and 12 companies to the list of sanction targets.

The new list of sanctions includes a ban on coal, iron, titanium, rare earth minerals and aviation fuel exports to North Korea, all vital resources for the pursuit of its nuclear program. Additionally, the new sanctions will implement the restrictions related to the arms embargo, targeting small arms and light weapons and a large number of supplies used by the North Korean military. New measures to freeze all North Korean funds abroad, preventing Kim’s entourage from acquiring foreign luxury goods to support their lavish lifestyle have been included in the new list of the sanctions.

Since the 1970s, the regime’s grip on power has rested on a system of privileges and goods given to its core elite, the ultimate keepers of the Kims’ divine right to rule the country. In particular, appointments to prestigious or lucrative positions have consolidated the kleptocratic system at every echelon of the Korean Worker Party. Furthermore, gift-giving and concession of privileges such as housing, expensive automobiles or watches have played a major role in securing Kim Jong Un’s power.

The latest sanctions are expected to seriously affect the already precarious North Korean economy, tittering on the verge of the collapse due to Pyongyang’s adamant decision to allocate all of its available economic resources to pursue the Seon-gun (“Military first” policy) in order to become a nuclear armed state. The military first policy emerged in 1994 with Kim Jong Il ascension to power and has rapidly become one of the ideological cornerstones of the country.

Under this vision, the DPRK has unveiled a new strategy that focuses on the country’s military power enhancement, with the nuclear program as the most advanced form of glorification of the Kim’s leadership and most effective deterrent to any foreign threats. Indeed, the current North Korean leadership has been characterized by its aggressive behavior against the U.S. and its allies and the bolstering of military power.


Kim Jong-un inspecting an alleged nuclear device component in a DPRK’s nuclear research facility. (KCNA credits)

While the DPRK had already developed nuclear capabilities in the past, the official recognition of its nuclear power status, enshrined in the Constitution, represents an additional source of the legitimacy to the Kim’s  dynasty after North Korea abruptly withdrew from the NPT in 2003. Pyongyang’s decision to push forward its nuclear program also reflects the regime’s inability to fulfill their militaristic ambitions through the projection of conventional military power in Korean Peninsula. Indeed, relying on the expansion of asymmetric capabilities represents a valuable tool for Kim Jong Un to address critical issues regarding the survival of the regime such as:

  • Consolidating Kim’s dynastic leadership
  • Preventing internal coups and purging possible challengers
  • Deterring any military threats or invasions from the U.S./South Korea
  • Strengthening the discourse over the unification of the Korean peninsula under his guidance

Pyongyang’s High Stake

As expected, the new sanctions have further heightened the tensions in the Korean peninsula. As the annual ROK-U.S. joint naval exercise approaches, North Korean propaganda has intensified with Kim Jong Un’s recent order to have nuclear weapons ready to be used at short notice to defend the country from any upcoming threat as reported on Friday by the DPRK’s central news agency. Furthermore, galvanized by the recent provocative firing of short-range missiles in the Sea of Japan, Kim Jong Un has made a new series threats against South Korean President Park after her recent decision to close down the Kaesong industrial facility and place new sanctions against Pyongyang.

Despite intense diplomatic efforts led by President Park to dissuade the North Korean’s leadership from pursuing nuclear weapons, Pyongyang has shown no interest in resuming any multilateral agreement or negotiation, even under Beijing’s pressure. Yet, the Chinese leadership remains skeptical over the effectiveness of economic sanctions as a tool to bring back North Korea to the negotiation table as stressed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his recent visit to Washington.

Under the pressure of Pyongyang’s increasing brinkmanship and Kim Jong Un’s threats to launch preventive nuclear attacks, Seoul is urging for the installation of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) under the U.S.’ supervision. THAAD would represent a valuable asset for South Korea, increasing its level of preparedness against a possibly fatal nuclear strike, although Beijing has recently expressed concerns over the deployment of strategic weaponry considered a potential threat to China’s core interests in the region.

Sharp Calculation

Since Pyongyang has inaugurated its nuclear program in the late 1980s, frequent crises arising from North Korea’s aggressive behavior has inflamed the peninsula, leading to dangerous escalations. In the past, the pragmatic DPRK leadership has used the nuclear program as a bargaining chip to acquire humanitarian aid and resources, as shown by its short-lived commitment to stop the activities of the Yongbyon reactor in 2007.

Despite Pyongyang’s warnings of pre-emptive strikes, the North fully understands the consequences of a military confrontation with Washington and its allies. By complying with the international community’s demands for the regime to renounce its nuclear power ambitions, Pyongyang could put an end to the economic sanctions that have plagued the North Korean economy for a long time. Compliance could also lead to economic and energy assistance from Seoul and, more importantly, pave the way for a peace treaty with its southern neighbor.

However, such a dramatical change of direction would most likely foster the rise of a reformer faction within the regime, willing to offer limited reforms under the auspices of Beijing. However, in this scenario, Kim Jong Un undivided rule would be seriously jeopardized.

Although in the past, Kim Jong Il traded the nuclear program in return for economic and food aid, his son’s hold on power relies on his ability to advance the country’s nuclear program. As the new sanctions start to bite, one would expect the North’s virulent rhetoric to reach new highs, even if this threatens the peninsula’s status quo and the survival of the Kim regime.



Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito