About the Author
View more articles by Park Ui-sung
Park Ui-sung is a North Korean defector now living in the South. He grew up in the country's coastal regions.
Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Today’s question: What do you think about recent UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea? Did sanctions affect your daily life in the DPRK?
I am still a little bit skeptical about the effectiveness of sanctions against North Korea.
Of course, it is understandable to think that they have pressured North Korea into seeking talks with the U.S. and South Korea. But there have been 11 sanctions-strengthening resolutions by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) since its first nuclear test: we can’t give them too much credit for changing Kim Jong Un’s mind.
And although increasingly severe sanctions were imposed by UN Security Council after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, the DPRK has long had an isolated economy.
When former President Jimmy Carter mentioned sanctions as a bargaining chip during his visit to Pyongyang in 1994, Kim Il Sung noted that North Korea would not get any worse with additional restrictive measures; moreover, he said that while the removal of sanctions would be good news to us, there was nothing much to fear if they remained in place.
The severity of the pressure has increased since the end of the Cold War, and North Korean propagandists have taken advantage of this. This propaganda claims the United States is using its hostile policy – especially through economic hardship – to isolate and lead North Koreans to death.
I sometimes even wonder if the leadership in the North actually enjoys sanctions, which often feel like they have more of a symbolic meaning than de facto binding force. This is especially true for North Korea, an isolated country that hardly has any exchange with others.
The authorities fear internal opposition more than restrictive economic measures: they know better than anyone that their citizens waking up to reality will make their authority fall apart like a sand castle.
I sometimes even wonder if the leadership in the North actually enjoys sanctions
Sanctions are objectively confirming North Korean propaganda: you can see this everytime new measures are passed. North Korean politicians are usually happy to give up trips overseas and to freeze their bank accounts in exchange for this internal unity: the thing they value the most in the world.
Then how, on the other hand, do ordinary North Korean citizens feel about the sanctions? Honestly, I didn’t really experience them as that severe. Restrictions are an ordinary thing in lives of North Koreans and I had never experienced anything different.
To me, news of new UNSCR measures was like the flu shot announcement that comes every fall – something that wasn’t welcome but just needed to be accepted. Nonetheless, these are just my personal thoughts.
I asked several people who recently defected from North Korea for their feelings toward sanctions. Although many replied like me and said they didn’t have much of an effect on their lives, I was surprised to find out that some people actually had been heavily influenced.
Those who were most affected were the wealthy class in Pyongyang; according to their words, the price of oil was heavily impacted by sanctions, as were the country’s exchange rates. Those operating big companies in North Korea also noted that they could definitely feel business setbacks after the imposing of sanctions.
However, people who’ve lived on the border between China and North Korea, surprisingly, experienced positive circumstances due to the sanctions. As a matter of fact, smuggling between people on the border has increased due to the shut down of trading routes due to the sanctions; as a result, smugglers have been able to earn large profits.
It is reasonable to say that most people, like me, did not feel the consequences of sanctions too severely.
But with measures now stronger than ever, it is true that sanctions – regardless of their size – will begin to really affect the common people. As a person who left behind my friends and neighbors in my hometown in North Korea, I do something worry it will harm their lives.
Translation by Jenny Lee
Edited by Oliver Hotham