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More sanctions for North Korea?

The U.N Security Council called an emergency meeting after the North Korean military conducted a confirmed nuclear test at an undisclosed location. A U.S. geological base in Pyongyang registered a 4.9 magnitude tremor late Tuesday night.

South Korean army soldiers patrol along barbed-wire fences at the Imjingak Pavilion, near the demilitarized zone of Panmunjom, in Paju, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The test is the first under the presidency of Kim Jong Eun, who went forward with it despite an array of stringent international sanctions aimed at deterring North Korea from pursuing its nuclear program.

President Obama called the event a “highly provocative act,” that “warrants further swift and credible action by the international community,” in a press release. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said the launch was “deplorable” and expressed concern that the event could destabilize the region. Even China — one of North Korea’s few allies and trading partners — was highly critical of the launch, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs releasing a statement saying it was “fully opposed to this act.”

The Security Council in a public statement found the test to be a grave violation of previous sanctions imposed on the DPRK back in 2006, which included a ban on importing nuclear and missile technology.

In January, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to take “significant action” against North Korea in the event of nuclear test. But how will the UNSC respond? And what impact do economic sanctions have on North Korean citizens?

To delve deeper into these questions, Need to Know spoke with Dr. Jeffery Lewis, the director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Lewis explained that the sanctions imposed on luxury goods, technologies and banking are intended to weaken the elite classes — but can have ripple effects that impact the population as a whole.

“With sanctions we try to target the leadership, we try not to hurt the public. But when banks are targeted for financing weapons technology, all of their assets become frozen, which hits the economy at large.”

Sanctions can also have unintended consequences.

“Prohibitions open up black markets which are run by smugglers. Smugglers are often connected with the elites, so sanctions can actually be profitable for the bureaucracy,” Lewis said. One of the most famous cases of this irony was the sanction of U.S. goods into the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. On the streets of Bellegrade, Phillip Morris cigarettes became a highly expensive commodity distributed on the black market by organized crime. That same organized crime was often responsible for cases of ethnic violence and social disruption.

However, Lewis argues there are also examples of strategic sanctions achieving their objective. “Prohibitions on luxury goods and financial industries essentially broke down the South African elite. This was a crucial step to ending apartheid,” he said.

Nonetheless, sanctions are one of the few diplomatic tools the Security Council has left. In Dr. Lewis’ view, China may need to be firm with the North Koreans for any new sanctions to hold weight.

“This is the time to ask for more from the Chinese.. once these sanctions are in place, the Chinese have a responsibility to make sure these sanctions are properly enforced.”

Related content:

Video by Tomas van Houtryve for VII magazine, September 30, 2010.

Today, as ever, much of what is said about North Korea is based more on speculation than first hand reporting. Posing as an investor looking to open a chocolate factory, Tomas van Houtryve managed to slip into North Korea twice. He faced hours of interrogation, was threatened by appartchiks, and at one point was almost exposed as a journalist. The bold tactics gave him access to factories, hospitals and government offices, some of which had never before been seen by a Western photographer.

The music in this story is called, “The Unforgettable Top Of Mount Osung” and is recorded by The Korean People’s Army Merited Chorus.