Sanctions Aftermath: Escalation Risks, North Korean Politics, and Implementation



If past cycles surrounding UNSC resolutions are any indication, we are about to enter a phase of escalation in both rhetoric and in military actions or other asymmetric probes. The rhetorical dimension came initially in the form of two separate statements: one from the Foreign Ministry, the other from the government. The statements retread old ground, questioning the authority of the UNSC to initiate sanctions, defending the nuclear test by reference to the hostile policy of the US and the satellite launch on more legalistic grounds (see the response to UNSC 2087 [2013] here). They also retread old ground in making threats, following an even more explicit Crucial Statement by the CPA Supreme Command on February 24. That statement threatened “pre-emption” following reports that the forthcoming exercises would include dry-runs of leadership decapitation and offensive operations. The literal first salvo: six short-range missiles fired from Wonsan into the East Sea only hours after the resolution was passed. As always, Rodong Sinmun emphasized the personal direction provided by Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Un’s comments included a statement that stressed “the need to get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defense always on standby so as to be fired any moment.” That such a move would be destabilizing is an understatement. The rhetorical escalation continued in a statement on Monday by the National Defense Commission itself (KCNA Watch and reproduced in full below). The statement veers between highly-risky bluster about pre-emption, and even nuclear pre-emption, and a carefully calibrated statement that any such action would ultimately be defensive. The title given to the statement suggests that action would only be taken in response to pre-emption by the South and US; certain descriptions of the exercises—and indeed their enlargement—have the highly unfortunate effect of placing North Korea on a hair trigger, which is not a desirable place for them to be. Following two points that suggests a willingness for the North to pre-empt, the statement turns back to defense: “If the enemies dare kick off even the slightest military action while vociferating about “beheading operation” aimed to remove the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and “bring down its social system”, its army and people will not miss the opportunity but realize the greatest desire of the Korean nation through a sacred war of justice for reunification.” The larger point: two adversaries who are both talking about pre-emption is not a recipe for calm.

It is not only the joint exercises that pose risks. Indeed, the most significant aspect of the current strategic context has to do with domestic politics in North Korea and the upcoming Party Congress in May. The significance of the event can be seen in the regime’s announcement of a 70-day campaign (from February 23 to May 2), an effort at mass mobilization that will include restrictions on market activity precisely as the effects of sanctions will be hitting the country. Moreover, as Michael Madden (North Korea Leadership Watch) notes in a useful review at 38North, the leadership has handed three crucial portfolios to hardliners over the last several months, suggesting strongly that both the upcoming period and the Congress itself are not likely to see a diminution of commitment to the byungjin line:

  • Lieutenant-General Rim Kwang Il was appointed Director of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff Operations Bureau, a position that has seen substantial turnover since the succession;
  • Kim Yong Chol, formerly head of the notorious Reconnaissance General Bureau, took over the reins at the United Front Department, suggesting a much tougher line toward the South and perhaps an interest in more direct leadership and party control of core security and intelligence functions (our analysis here);
  • In early February, General Ri Yong Gil was removed from his position as Chief of the KPA General Staff and replaced by General Ri Myong Su, formerly Minister of People’s Security and with a position on the National Defense Commission. Much older than the other two appointments (82), he served from 1996 to 2007 as Director of the KPA General Staff Operations Bureau and is thus closely identified with the songun or military first era.

None of this augurs well for the next three months.

As I argued in my review of the UNSC sanctions resolution (along with everyone else), much depends on China’s willingness to implement. However, I took a somewhat more expectant position than the rightly-jaded skeptics: why would China negotiate such a wide-ranging instrument—which affects the behavior of other countries as well—if it has no intention of implementing it at all?

The answer is that Beijing will probably exercise discretion, calibrating it’s moves to Pyongyang’s. It is far too early to make any judgment, and initial reports on implementation are predictably mixed (the DailyNK reported that directives had come down restricting coal imports from March 1 and Yonhap reports North Korean ships being denied entry to Dandong. The BBC by contrast offers up some premature skeptical coverage, showing coal and metals being unloaded in Dandong). It will take weeks to months before the effects of Chinese action–or inaction–are completely clear.

But we do have our first hard evidence of a material effect. Reuters claims to have seen a Chinese Ministry of Transport document ordering the “urgent” identification and “blacklisting” of the 31 OMM vessels listed as assets subject to seizure in the resolution. But in the most significant story to date, Reuters broke that the Philippines had actually seized one of the 31 ships on the sanctions list, the Jin Teng (flagged in Sierra Leone). Initially held only for safety violations, the Philippines subsequently recognized that the ship was a designated asset and now intends to hold it, deport the crew and have the UN Panel of Experts investigate and confirm.

A sample of other analyses of the sanctions:

Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Andrea Berger at 38North.

Paul Park and Katherine Moon at Brookings.

Bruce Klingner.

The Economist has a nice graphic timeline with the precipitating events and the sanctions responses.

Tristan Webb NK Pro (paywall).

DPRK National Defence Commission Warns of Military Counteraction for Preemptive Attack

Pyongyang, March 7 (KCNA) — The National Defence Commission of the DPRK issued a statement on Monday in connection with the fact that the U.S. imperialists and south Korean puppet forces decided to kick off the largest-ever joint military exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle 16 today.

They are claiming that the joint military exercises amount to “a crucial pressure” pursuant to the unreasonable UN “resolution on sanctions” faked up by them under the groundless pretext of the DPRK’s self-defensive first H-bomb test and its legitimate launch of earth observation satellite Kwangmyongsong-4.

The enemies, seized with extreme frenzy for invading the north, threw off even the deceptive mask “annual and “defensive ones”.

The situation is getting ever more serious as the enemies decided to stage the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle 16 joint military exercises by the way of fighting an actual war involving the thrice-cursed “beheading operation” aimed to remove the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and “bring down its social system” pursuant to the extremely adventurous OPLAN 5015.

The statement solemnly clarified the following principled stand as regards the fact that the prevailing situation reached a dangerous phase which should not be overlooked any longer:

1. The army and people of the DPRK will launch an all-out offensive to decisively counter the U.S. and its followers’ hysteric nuclear war moves to plunge the space of the DPRK’s existence into a nuclear disaster, not content with wantonly encroaching upon the sovereignty and security of the dignified DPRK.

Tragedy is that the U.S. and its followers have not yet realized how the illegal and outrageous “sanctions” make this land boil like a crucible of battle for wiping out the enemies and into what great fury their war frenzy for invading the north with nuclear threat is lashing all the service personnel and people of the DPRK.

As the enemies are foolishly resorting to military means including nuclear attack on the DPRK, all its service personnel and people will turn out in the general offensive to fully demonstrate the tremendous military muscle with nuclear force as pivot which they have built under the slogan of wiping out the U.S. imperialists and their lackeys to the last man.

2 . The army and people of the DPRK will take military counteraction for preemptive attack so that they may deal merciless deadly blows at the enemies under the grave situation where they are working with bloodshot eyes to infringe upon the dignity, sovereignty and vital rights of the DPRK.

We have the Juche-based mode of military counteraction to defend the socialist country as firm as a rock from any aggression and war in the world.

As the joint military exercises to be staged by the enemies are regarded as the most undisguised nuclear war drills aimed to infringe upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, its military counteraction will be more preemptive and offensive nuclear strike to cope with them.

The indiscriminate nuclear strike to be made by the DPRK will clearly show those keen on aggression and war the military mettle of Juche Korea.

Preemptive nuclear strike of justice is to be made in the order specified by the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army in its crucial statement.

3. If the enemies dare kick off even the slightest military action while vociferating about “beheading operation” aimed to remove the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and “bring down its social system”, its army and people will not miss the opportunity but realize the greatest desire of the Korean nation through a sacred war of justice for reunification.

We have a military operation plan of our style to liberate south Korea and strike the U.S. mainland ratified by our dignified supreme headquarters.

Pursuant to it, offensive means have been deployed to put major strike targets in the operation theatres of south Korea within the firing range and the powerful nuclear strike means targeting the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces bases in the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S. mainland are always ready to fire.

If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes in a moment and the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear strategic means on which the puppet forces depend as “saviors” turn into piles of scrap iron whether they are in the air, seas and land.

The time will prove how the crime-woven history of the U.S. imperialists who have grown corpulent through aggression and war will come to an end and how the Park Geun Hye group’s disgraceful remaining days will meet a miserable doom as it is keen on the confrontation with the fellow countrymen in the north.

The army and people of the DPRK will make the gunfire of provocateurs in the reckless war of aggression sound as a sad dirge.

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