News Analysis: U.S. sanctions irk Kim Jong-un at shaky time for his regime

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New U.S. sanctions aimed directly at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are a major personal insult to the brutal despot at a shaky time for his regime. It remains unknown whether he’ll follow through with the usual threats in response, or if the unpredictable leader will take it a step further.

While the U.S. has a number of other sanctions levied against North Korea, Wednesday marked the first time that such measures were aimed directly against Kim and 22 other top officials, in response to the country’s deplorable human rights record.

While the North has responded in typical fashion, making threats and likening the measures to an act of war – nothing new from a regime that has made such threats for decades – the sanctions are a rare insult against a leader whose family has enjoyed a cult-like loyalty – at least outwardly – since the 1950s. And if Kim’s brutal behavior toward even his own inner circle is any indication, the young leader doesn’t like to be insulted.

“North Korea is extremely sensitive to slights against its leader, so while it is not unprecedented for the U.S. to sanction a world leader, North Korea may be more likely to react to sanctions than other regimes,” Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute, told Borderless News Online.

North Korea has responded in somewhat predictable fashion by increasing its rhetoric and calling the new sanctions a declaration of war, while threatening to cut off all diplomatic ties with the United States.

Since the two countries have no formal relations, it is unclear if this means that North Korea would cut off informal ties as well. The North has done this in the past with South Korea, only to re-establish them over time after the tensions had cooled, Stangarone noted.

“At that moment, the response has largely been directed at the United States. As South Korea implements its own North Korea Human Rights Act, we could see increasing rhetorical pressure on the South as well,” he said.

The sanctions come at a shaky time for the Kim regime, and some observers in U.S. intel and security circles believe the young leader has not yet secured a grip on power. Some even predict the possibility of a coup.

Soon after Kim came took over leadership after father Kim Jong-il’s death, he purged the ruling party and executed the country’s no. 2 man, Jang Song Thaek, who also happened to be Kim’s uncle. The young leader has also ordered the killing of a number of advisors that served under his father and grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the much-revered father of North Korea.

One recent high level defector told U.S. media that the purges have generated much distrust for the young, untested leader among the country’s upper echelons. And some analysts believe that now Kim’s advisors are afraid to speak to him honestly, for fear of punishment for anything the young Kim doesn’t want to hear.

While recent financial and other sanctions effectively isolate North Korea from the U.S. financial system and economy, and by extension the global economy, the new designations strengthen those measures by clarifying that key individuals in North Korea are subject to sanction as well, Stangarone said.

While this is unlikely to have a direct impact on Kim, it does send a strong signal to others in the regime that those who violate human rights are at risk of having their assets seized and travel bans put in to place, he said.

Politically, the sanctions do two things. They increase the political pressure internationally on other regimes to refrain from doing business with North Korea. They also send a signal to North Korea that if it wishes to see sanctions removed in the future, it will also have to address the human rights conditions in the country, he said.

Still, the sanctions are unlikely to curtail North Korea’s human rights abuses, he said.

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