IN what will be seen as a significant ratcheting up of the pressure on isolated North Korea, South Korea is considering major changes in its relations with China – up until now the North’s main sponsor and supporter. The sinking of the South’s naval vessel, the Cheonan has added impetus to this initiative by South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, who is now prepared to enter into serious discussions with China over a new Free Trade Agreement – according to papers seen by The Guardian. And in a further attempt to detach China from the Communist North, South Korea wants to change its foreign policy – recognising China’s hold on Tibet and accepting China’s policy towards Taiwan.  All music to the ears of Beijing.

A Free Trade Agreement with the South has long been a Beijing aim – although the devil will be in the detail. Would any new FTA seriously open South Korea up to cheap Chinese goods, or according to some sceptics, will it be more of a political offering that promises jam tomorrow?

What South Korea wants in return is an end to China’s use of its veto at the UN Security Council whenever tougher sanctions are planned against the North. Up until now, China has favoured a softly, softly approach, and while it is increasingly embarrassed at some of the antics of the North, it has not been prepared to restrict flows of desperately needed energy to the North’s collapsed economy.

This then is the pincer movement, designed to choke off any remaining support for the regime of Kim Jong IL, and at a time of heightened tension across the de militarised zone. The South Korean game plan has changed from engagement and giving food aid, to an implacable opposition to a regime that is now armed with nuclear weapons.

But will this attempt to completely isolate an already desperately isolated North Korea work? A couple of years ago, while reporting from Pyongyang in North Korea, I was taken to the city’s football stadium to watch the national team being put through its paces. Little did I know then that the North Koreans were set to liven up the World Cup this Summer – from what I could see the players had pretty rudimentary facilities, and even if they were better fed than many of their compatriots, they were all a good deal smaller in stature that the average South Korean.  The idea that this lot could get into the qualifying round of the World Cup seemed pretty far fetched.

But then there is a tendency, and one which causes huge offence to North Korean officialdom to patronise the emissaries of the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, in the same way that successive US Presidents have come to believe that the North Korean State, riddled as it is with contradictions and lurching from economic crisis to food shortages, is on life support and set to collapse. The North Korean regime has survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of its’ own heavy industrial base and staggered through the long, slow periods of starvation of the 1990s, which the regime characteristically described as the nation’s ‘arduous march’. Currently, according to the South Korean Government, the economic situation is ‘dire’ and this is coupled with a power struggle as Kim Jong IL, the Dear Leader continues to suffer from ill health.

The current favourite to succeed – if Kim Jong IL goes within the next couple of years, is his brother in law, Jang Sung-tak, who at the age of 65 would continue the rule of the governing gerontocracy. But, and again according to South Korean insiders, should Kim Jong Il hold on for another five years, the way will be open for Kim Il Jong’s younger son, Kim Jong Un, currently aged 27 and known as ‘Brilliant Comrade’, who could be young enough and energetic enough, to begin at least a limited perestroika, and a re-evaluation of North Korea’s relations with the international community. But it is this power struggle that some North Korea watchers use to explain the North’s hot and cold attitude to the now defunct nuclear talks, while others point to the sinking of the South Korean naval patrol vessel, the Cheonan, with the loss of 46 lives as another example of a growing hostility. Yet even the multi -national report by military experts into the sinking of the Cheonan is now raising more questions than it attempted to answer, with two prominent South Korean academics based in the United States pouring cold water on the South’s claims.

What isn’t in doubt is the profound deterioration in relations between the North and the South, and a return to the darker days of the Cold War. All of this since 2009, when the South signed the Proliferation Security Initiative and the North retaliated by saying the post Korean War Ceasefire Treaty was no longer valid. Relations between Kim Jong IL and the South’s President Lee Myung-bak are in the deepest of freezes, and the Korean peninsula more volatile than it has been for decades.  China will be weighing up the benefits of free trade with the South with a very ugly fall out with Pyongyang.