SEOUL, South Korea – Seven years of U.N. sanctions against North Korea have done nothing to derail Pyongyang’s drive for a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. They may have even bolstered the Kim family by giving their propaganda maestros ammunition to whip up anti-U.S. sentiment and direct attention away from government failures.
In the wake of fresh U.N. sanctions leveled at North Korea on Thursday for its latest nuclear test, the question is: Will this time be different?
Since 2006, North Korea has launched long-range rockets, tested a variety of missiles and conducted three underground nuclear explosions, the most recent on Feb. 12. Through it all, Pyongyang was undeterred by a raft of sanctions – both multilateral penalties from the United Nations and national sanctions from Washington, Tokyo and others – meant to punish the government and sidetrack its nuclear ambitions.
A problem with the approach, analysts said, is that outsiders routinely underestimate North Korea’s knack for survival. The sanctions are intended to make life more difficult for a country that has crushing poverty, once suffered through a devastating famine and lost its Soviet backers long ago, but Pyongyang often manages to find some advantage.
While state media have not officially announced the new measures, North Korean citizens have been both defiant and dismissive about past sanctions.
“The sanctions are a trigger, a confrontation,” said Kim Myong Sim, a 36-year-old who works at Pyongyang Shoe Factory. “History has shown that Korea has never even thrown a stone at America, but the U.S. still continues to have a hostile policy toward my country.”
If North Koreans have “the respected general’s order, we will wipe Washington from the Earth,” she said, referring to leader Kim Jong Un. She said North Koreans have “already suffered sanctions in the past, but we have found our own way and have become self-reliant.”
Sanctions “may be doing more to strengthen the regime than hasten its demise,” according to a 2011 essay by John Delury and Chung-in Moon, North Korea specialists at Yonsei University.
“They have generally been counterproductive by playing into Pyongyang hardliners’ argument that U.S. hostility is the root cause of North Korea’s predicament, providing an external enemy to blame for all woes and undercutting initiatives by more moderate forces in the North Korean elite who want to shift the focus more toward economic development,” Delury said in an interview Friday.
The U.N. resolution approved Thursday targets North Korea’s ruling class by banning nations from exporting expensive jewelry, yachts, luxury automobiles and race cars to the North. It also imposes new travel sanctions that would require countries to expel agents working for certain North Korean companies.
Diplomats at the U.N. boasted that the sanctions resolution sends a powerful message to North Korea’s young leader. “These sanctions will bite, and bite hard,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said.
But they may also play into Kim Jong Un’s hands.
With the outside world clamoring to punish North Korea, Kim can build the same image his late father, Kim Jong Il, looked to create – that of a strong leader developing nuclear weapons despite outrage from the U.S. superpower, said Ahn Chan-il, a political scientist who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul.
“We have been living with sanctions for a long time, so we’re used it,” Jang Jun Sang, a department director at the Ministry of Public Health, told The Associated Press in an interview in Pyongyang late last month.
He acknowledged that sanctions have cut imports of medical equipment and supplies. But he said North Korea would find ways to cope. “If we receive medical aid, that’s good,” he said. “But if we don’t, that’s fine, too. We’re not worried.”
The U.N. Security Council issued the latest sanctions because Pyongyang violated earlier resolutions barring it from conducting nuclear or missile tests. The council passed those measures because it considers North Korea’s nuclear testing a threat to international peace and stability.
North Korea dismisses that as a double standard, and claims the right to build nuclear weapons as a defense against the United States, which it blames for leading the push for sanctions.
Pyongyang said before the U.N. vote that it would scrap the armistice that ended the Korean War, and after the vote issued a statement saying it was canceling a hotline and a nonaggression pact with rival South Korea.
The U.N. tries to tailor its sanctions to punish the leadership, not average North Koreans. But it’s an imperfect exercise.
The latest sanctions will squeeze North Korea’s already meager exports and imports, which will in turn cause pain for citizens, said Cho Bong-hyun, a research fellow at the IBK Economic Research Institute in Seoul.
“North Korea’s economy faces so many difficulties already, and it can get even worse [because of the sanctions],” Cho said.
A glimpse of North Korean thinking on sanctions can be seen in a wave of recent warlike threats from North Korea. Fierce language associated with the specter of yet more sanctions leveled at the North by Washington and its allies feeds into an us-against-the-world mentality.
It is meant to “solidify Kim Jong Un’s leadership by creating a state of quasi-war and tension,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
Immediately before the Security Council vote, a spokesman for Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry said the North will exercise its right for “a pre-emptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors” because of the U.S.-led push for sanctions and U.S.-South Korean joint military drills.
The primary intended audience for such rhetoric is often not outsiders but North Koreans.
When a crisis looms, soldiers, officials and propaganda writers vie with each other to show their extreme loyalty to, and to win promotion and praise from, the ruling Kim family.
Analyst Baek Seung-joo, of the South Korean state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said it’s “like a loyalty competition.”
One caveat to the sanctions dilemma is China, which is North Korea’s economic lifeline, providing almost all the country’s oil and generous amounts of food aid.
Pyongyang’s dependency on Beijing has grown as sanctions have piled up. Chinese products made up only about 43 percent of North Korean imports in 2006, compared to more than 95 percent in 2012, according to data from the International Trade Centre. The group, a joint agency of the U.N. and the World Trade Organization, said more than $3.5 billion in Chinese exports reached North Korea last year.
Beijing’s backing for the new measures signals its growing frustration with its neighbor and ally.
“In the past, we opened our eyes and closed our eyes as need be. Now we’re not closing our eyes anymore,” said Cui Yingjiu, a retired professor from Peking University in China and a former classmate of Kim Jong Il.
But Chinese leaders have been wary of putting too much pressure on Pyongyang for fear that the Kim government would collapse, sending North Koreans streaming across the border and potentially leading to the loss of a buffer against a U.S.-allied South Korea.
If China changes course and rigorously enforces the U.N. resolution, “it could seriously disrupt, if not end, North Korea’s proliferation activities. Unfortunately, if past behavior is any guide, this is unlikely to happen,” Marcus Noland, a North Korean watcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said in an institute blog post.