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North Korea: Is the worst yet to come?

Analysis: An ailing "Great Leader," a regime against the ropes and a sense of nuclear impunity.

Off the Leash?

Alone among nations, China has held some sway over North Korea ever since riding to the communist regime’s rescue in during the 1950-53 Korean War. Of late, having friends like the North Koreans has proved no great deal for Beijing, who supply most of North Korea’s energy and the lion’s share of its trade — in spite of the fact that Beijing has twice in the past five years agreed to U.N. resolutions imposing sanction on the North (both times — 2006 and 2009 — after nuclear tests).

If China would like to see the North’s regime go, it also shares fears with South Korea of the unpredictable consequences of a sudden regime collapse. What a nuclear-armed military might do to forestall the end of the dictatorship is one scary question. At very least, millions of indigent refugees would flood over the borders, and officials in both countries know they would inherit the burden of feeding the rest of the North’s 23 million people.

All of this has shocked South Korean officials, who have generally been less hawkish than the U.S. with regard to the North. Ties have deteriorated over the past few years — and after the South publicly accused the North of sinking the Cheonan, all diplomatic ties (and most humanitarian aid) were ended.

While the South’s shared fear of sudden collapse is as acute as China’s, Seoul has another reason to be wary. Some 11,000 artillery tubes are emplaced just over the demilitarized zone by the North, all aimed at the 10 million people of Seoul. U.S. military officials have said that, short of using a tactical nuclear weapon to destroy these weapons, virtually nothing could stop the complete destruction of the South Korean capital within hours of the commencement of another war.

One way or another, the Korean peninsula has entered into a new and dangerous phase. President Obama’s choice to be the next director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said as much at his Senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday, though he noted the conflict has experienced peaks and valleys of tension ever since the Korean war armistice ended fighting.

It’s tempting to look back and regard this as just a cyclical spike in tensions. But the North may indeed feel its nuclear weapons change everything. The U.S. and the South have every reason to avoid allowing an “impunity precedent” to take root. And with China unsure who’s up and who’s down in Pyongyang, the scope for miscalculation is tremendous.

Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that U.S. heightened sanctions against North Korea go into effect on Sunday, July 25.