North Korea: How U.S. sanctions will hurt ordinary people before they hurt Kim

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a major human rights abuser, and treats his own people like insects — squashing them when he needs to.

But while many may applaud putting sanctions on him and his brutal regime, the sanctions likely won’t hurt him at all. While Kim continues to keep fund his nuclear weapons program instead of feeding the impoverished population, ordinary North Koreans will get get hit the hardest.

Over the past year, Kim has conducted a slew of weapons tests. In response, Trump has slapped a number of sanctions on North Korea, in a bid to get Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.

But Kim will be alright. He might be limited to how many Mercedes automobiles he can buy, or how many exotic, foreign gifts he can lavish on his mistresses. He might have to hold back on his consumption of caviar.  But he won’t starve from the sanctions and won’t have to freeze for lack of heating oil. In sharp contrast, that will could be the fate of millions of his people.

Recently, every time North Korea conducts a new missile test, Washington responds with a new round of sanctions. The problem is, sanctions would only work if Kim had even an ounce of concern for his own people. But seeing the suffering of his own people won’t move Kim to give up his nuclear weapons program.

That’s because he sees nukes as the key to preventing a U.S. invasion, such as the one that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein over a decade ago. And Kim’s mind, holding on to power — and nukes — is more important than millions of his own people.

Despite the sanctions, the wine is flowing and the party continues for the nation’s elite — families of party officials, mostly. Western media has documented this, with one publication referring to “Pyonghattan,” comparing North Korea’s capital to the trendy, cosmopolitan U.S. city of New York. The children of the elite are wearing fashion from stylish European brands and some are even getting plastic surgery, mimicking the style that has become the norm for most South Koreans.

Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, said that average North Koreans will feel the sting of sanctions, such as engineers, truck drivers and others.  Choi Ha-young, chairman of the Love North Korean Children Charity, recently said  that because of the sanctions, “people in the lowest class are really impacted.” 

It’s important to note that those in the lower class are there not because of economic factors, but because of political reasons. North Korea employs a brutal caste system, and where you end up is based on the songbun — your family’s history of perceived loyalty to the government.

Having a grandparent who was perceived to be disloyal to the state will impact the family even 70 years later. Human Rights Watch noted the story of  Choi Seung Chol, a North Korean young man whose grandfather had supported the Japanese in WWII. No matter how much Choi — who was born in 1990 — excelled in school, he would not be allowed to study at the best schools or work in the best jobs, because of this blemish on his family’s record. Because of the family history, Choi’s entire family was forced to live in an isolated, rural mountain area and had to do backbreaking farm labor to survive.

That illustrates that sanctions are yet another hit to North Korea’s poor. They’ve suffered under the state, now they will suffer under sanctions.

Charity organizations say the sanctions are impacting their operations, even though the sanctions are supposedly not intended to impact humanitarian aid.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said sanctions are “really starting to hurt,” noting that around a dozen North Korean fishing boats got stranded in Japanese waters, as they had been sent out in winter due to food shortages, and were sent out without enough fuel to get back.

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