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(New Year Special) Sanctions will pose tough test for N. Korean leader in 2018: experts

2017/12/29 09:00

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By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Dec. 29 (Yonhap) -- Next year will be a critical period for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as he would have to show some progress in his policies, especially in the economy, amid deepening international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs, experts said Friday.

The North's ruler may seek to launch a peace offensive toward the United States to break the current deadlock as sanctions will likely begin to hit the regime hard in the new year, they added.

Outside analysts are closely watching what message Kim would deliver in his New Year's speech to gauge his policy directions.

In January 2017, the North's leader said that his country has entered the final stage of preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In line with his words, North Korea has raised the level of its provocations this year, inviting stronger international sanctions.

The wayward regime conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September and launched three ICBMs which it claims are capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

This photo, unveiled by North Korea's state-run news agency on Dec. 9, 2017, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Mount Paektu, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap) This photo, unveiled by North Korea's state-run news agency on Dec. 9, 2017, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Mount Paektu, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

"He can claim victory in 2017 because of the progress on the nuclear deterrent. He will have to begin to show progress on the economy in order to nail down his bona fides as a strong leader," said Ken Gause, a senior analyst at U.S.-based CNA Corp.

"Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-un's legitimacy is tied closely to policy success."

   Kim took office in late 2011 after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il. He has been seeking the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear and economic development, commonly known as the "byongjin" policy.

North Korea declared in November that it has completed the "state nuclear force" after firing a new Hwasong-15 ICBM which it says can put the whole U.S. mainland within range.

He would be under pressure to showcase some feats next year which marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the North Korean regime.

The North's leader may want to shift his attention to economic achievements, but U.N. sanctions may begin to put strain on its economy starting next year, experts say.

The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) adopted the sanctions resolution 2375 after North's sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3. It is aimed at slashing North Korea's oil imports by 30 percent and bans exports of North Korean textiles.

On Dec. 22, the UNSC also passed Resolution 2397 in response to the ICBM test on Nov. 29. The new sanctions seek to slash refined petroleum product exports to North Korea by 89 percent.

"North Korea's exports are expected to fall sharply from next year due to the impact of sanctions," Lim Soo-ho, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, said in a report.

"A sharp decline in foreign currency income will likely lead to a fall in imports, dealing a heavy blow to the North Korean economy," he added.

The state-run Institute for National Security Strategy (INNS) said that the North's economy is expected to be severely dented after March, affected by stringent sanctions and increased spending on conventional weapons.

"But it is not uncertain whether this would prompt the North to change its course toward denuclearization," the institute said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to keep a campaign of "maximum pressure" on North Korea. Washington has said that all options including military action are on the table though it prefers diplomacy to resolve North Korea's nuclear issue.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea intensified this year with Kim and Trump trading bellicose rhetoric. The North's leader vowed to take the "highest-level" action in response to Trump's threat to "totally destroy" the North over its nuclear and missile programs.

Experts said the North may try to turn the situation in its favor next year as it would hope to use its latest announcement of completing its nuclear force as a "strategic repose" for its next step.

But they cautioned against too much optimism, saying that the North's peace gesture could be "deceptive" to earn time for its weapons development, not for genuine dialogue.

"North Korea may refrain from making major provocations until the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February and could propose for talks from its 'tactical' perspective," the INNS said.

The institute said that unless the North unveils its clear bid to develop the economy and steps for denuclearization, it would be hard to expect that North Korea would take a different course.

Seoul is pinning hopes on the North's possible participation in the upcoming Winter Games, believing that it would help bring conciliatory mood to the Korean Peninsula.

President Moon Jae-in said that he proposed to the U.S. to delay the allies' joint military drills that may coincide with the Olympics or the Paralympics.

"The fact that North Korea has declared the completion of nuclear force does not indicate that it would stop nuclear and missile testing," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute. "The North is likely to sharpen its missile technology next year with tests on an ICBM's re-entry and an advanced form of submarine-launched missiles."

  

This photo, carried by North Korea's main newspaper Rodong Sinmun, on Nov. 30, 2017, shows the launch of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile a day earlier. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap) This photo, carried by North Korea's main newspaper Rodong Sinmun, on Nov. 30, 2017, shows the launch of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile a day earlier. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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