SEOUL, South Korea – Seven years of U.N. sanctions against North Korea has done nothing to derail Pyongyang’s drive for a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. It may have even bolstered the Kim family by giving its 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 has been 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.
North Korean citizens are both defiant and dismissive about sanctions.
“The sanctions are a trigger, a confrontation,” said Kim Myong Sim, 36, 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 in Seoul.
“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.
Indeed, North Korea has unleashed a torrent of propaganda in the wake of the U.N. Security Council resolution, seizing on the sanctions as evidence of Washington’s attempt to bring down North Korea by “disarming and suffocating it economically.”
“The world will clearly see what permanent position (North Korea) will reinforce as a nuclear weapons state and satellite launcher as a result of the U.S. attitude of prodding the UNSC into cooking up the ‘resolution,’ ” an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement released by state media Saturday.
The resolution 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.
“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.”