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How Will Sanctions Affect North Koreans?


North Korean women carry firewood as they walk along a highway in Sinpyong county in North Hwanghae province, North Korea. There are concerns that new sanctions will hurt ordinary North Koreans.

North Korean women carry firewood as they walk along a highway in Sinpyong county in North Hwanghae province, North Korea. There are concerns that new sanctions will hurt ordinary North Koreans.


Human rights organizations are supporting the latest international measures aimed at restricting North Korea’s nuclear program.

Yet the economic sanctions could make life more difficult for many North Koreans who already live in poverty.

Phil Robertson is with Human Rights Watch, a non-profit rights group.

“I think that the whole idea of pressure on North Korea is something that is important because it actually makes the government recognize that it can no longer live outside international law...”

Robertson is deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Sanctions and human rights linked

The United Nations Security Council adopted the latest sanctions after North Korea tested a long-range rocket in February 2016. One month earlier, North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test.

The United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution during a meeting at U.N. headquarters, March 2, 2016.

The United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution during a meeting at U.N. headquarters, March 2, 2016.

The sanctions set up trade and financial restrictions on North Korea to cut off financing to its nuclear and missile programs.

But the U.N. measure failed to identify a 2014 U.N. resolution to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. It also ignored a U.N. human rights report that documented abuses, including political prisons, killings, enslavement, torture and rape.

The human rights measure has not been brought to a vote in the Security Council because North Korean allies China and Russia would veto it.

The United States and China worked together on developing the international sanctions. China most likely opposed bringing attention to the human rights violations because of criticism of its own rights record.

Samantha Power speaks to the UN Security Council after the sanctions vote.

Samantha Power speaks to the UN Security Council after the sanctions vote.

When the Council approved the sanctions on March 2, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, did link the two issues.

She accused North Korea of caring more about expanding its nuclear weapons program than “growing its children.”

The U.S. recently announced new sanctions against North Korea. They note the North’s human rights abuses as justification for the punitive measures.

Humanitarian consequences of sanctions

Some human rights advocates argue that humanitarian hardships caused by the sanctions are unavoidable. They say international action is needed to pressure the North Korean leadership to end its repressive ways.

Choi Yong-sang is with the Network for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul.

He said, “The sanctions from the international community will have an economic impact on North Koreans, but on the other hand the North Korean regime will clearly feel the impact as well.”

The new U.N. measures could affect many North Koreans. Workers in the mining industry will likely suffer from the U.N. ban on the export of North Korean minerals.

There are, however, humanitarian exceptions in the resolution that permit the trade of coal and iron not linked to government organizations.

There are also restrictions that ban North Korean banking activity and identify a number of individuals and organizations linked to the North’s nuclear program. These restrictions could have a chilling effect on possible donors and investors.

The U.S. unilateral sanctions could target anyone connected to the North Korean labor export program that earns billions of dollars. Most of that money reportedly goes to the North Korean government.

In February, South Korea closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The move put over 54,000 North Korean employees out of work.

Yet the U.N. resolution states that it is “not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK.”

A possible food shortage remains a major concern

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in February that the North Korean people are already suffering a significant food shortage.

The FAO said North Korea needs 440,000 tons of food from overseas this year. Yet international donors have only provided 17,600 tons so far.

North Korea’s state media recently warned that the sanctions may cause another “arduous march.” That expression refers to the famine in the 1990s that is said to have killed over 3 million people.

Most private South Korean aid programs for the North have been suspended because of the recent sanctions and tensions between the two sides.

The Eugene Bell Foundation provides tuberculosis medicines to North Koreans. The group was blocked last month from bringing medicines to the North because of new South Korean unilateral sanctions. South Korea, however, did later make exceptions for humanitarian aid, and the medications did get through.

Human rights activists support providing aid to innocent people in North Korea. These people are caught in the middle of the international dispute.

But in the past, North Korea accepted the aid and used it for political purposes. Many countries, including the United States and South Korea, suspended assistance programs years ago.

Phil Robertson has called for a close watch of aid.

“Our view on humanitarian aid is that we don’t agree to have restrictions on humanitarian aid and we do support, for instance, support for food aid and other basic humanitarian materials for North Korea, but we believe also that these need to be strictly monitored.”

Yet Choi Yong-sang says it is unclear if finding out how aid is given out is possible.

“If the international community can closely inspect the distribution process, it can assist the people without helping the regime, but we are not sure if North Korea would accept such a condition.”

The growth of private markets could ease the effects of the sanctions for many North Koreans. Since the 1990s, the people have become less dependent on the Communist government for their daily needs.

But as the tighter sanctions are enforced, the more likely it is that ordinary North Koreans will experience greater economic pain than the leadership in Pyongyang.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Brian Padden reported this story for VOANews.com. Mario Ritter adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Do sanctions work? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments and post on our Facebook page, thank you.

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Words in This Story

adopt – v. to agree to, to accept

punitive adj. as punishment

advocate – n. someone who speaks for another, someone who supports a person, group or cause

unilateral –adj. describing action taken by only one side

significant –adj. important, notable

arduous adj. very difficult, very hard

sanction - n. a threatened punishment for disobeying a rule or law

impact - n. effect; result

DPRK - abbreviation short for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

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