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Sanctions on North Korea may be losing their bite

Although North Korea's claims of testing a hydrogen bomb are being met with skepticism, the detonation that did occur has prompted calls by both the United Nations and U.S. lawmakers to impose additional economic sanctions on the "hermit kingdom." It is unclear however, whether such actions would have any effect on the country's leadership.

Over the years, North Korea has faced arms embargoes, bans on the importation of luxury goods and restrictions on its access to the international banking system. These sanctions have occasionally resulted in the seizure of North Korean commercial vessels deemed to be involved with the illegal arms trade. The country has always been off limits to U.S. banks, according to the American Bankers Association.

But experts concede that any new measures may have limited impact on a nation that isolates itself from the international community as a matter of policy, has endured decades of sanctions and whose 25 million people already face chronic food insecurity. In the 1990s, North Korea experienced one of the most devastating famines of the 20th century, claiming the lives of an estimated 1 million people. International aid groups report marginal improvement, but hunger is believed to remain widespread.

"There is no sign that the crazy autocrats who run North Korea will all of a sudden now start worrying about the millions who are starving in their country," said Carla Anne Robbins, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on North Korea. "At least in the case of the sanctions placed on Iran, their leaders had to deal with their own internal public opinion."

Added Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College and one of the nation's leading experts on Asian geopolitics: "There are limits to how much you can use sanctions on a country where so many are already living so austerely."

North Korea and its 25 million citizens have long suffered as one of the world's most desperately poor countries. Its gross domestic product is an estimated $1,800 per person, compared with $53,000 in the U.S.

"Bribery is pervasive, and corruption is endemic at every level of the state and economy," reports the 2015 Index of Economic Freedomfrom the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank whose index ranks North Korea a 1.6 on a 100 scale. "The Workers' Party, the Korean People's Army, and cabinet officials run companies that compete to earn foreign exchange. Almost all property belongs to the state. Government control extends to all imports and exports as well as domestically produced goods."

While the U.S. and other Western countries have little influence over North Korea, one country may be able to meaningfully apply pressure, Robbins said: China. "The only one with leverage are the Chinese. Everything that gets to North Korea comes and goes through China."

Officials in Beijing were quick to denounce what's believed to be North Korea's latest nuclear test, which comes just months after China President Xi Jinping agreed to send a high-level representative to Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of North Korea's ruling party, the first such visit since Kim Jong Un assumed leadership in 2011. In the past, China has restricted the flow of critical products like crude oil into North Korea in hopes of reining in Pyongyang.

"North Korea's only leverage is their behavior on the world stage whether the Chinese like it or not," Kwong said. "It is very important for China that North Korea not implode. And for China, the thought of a possible reunification between North and South Korea is as provocative for China as the Ukraine joining NATO would be for Russia."

Veteran North Korea watchers say the country is reverting to what it has always done to get the world's attention. "This is all about posturing," said Bobby Egan, a Bergen County, New Jersey, restaurant owner, whose freelance exploits trying to advance North Korean relations with the U.S. have included several trips to that country, generating a lot of media attention.

"Things are critical in that country, and the level of food production is below what they need to sustain their population. I just don't get this," Egan said. "You didn't see any North Koreans on those planes that hit the World Trade Towers did you? We have lifted sanctions on Cuba. Why not have somebody like an ambassador to North Korea?"

Yet while the U.S. has periodically made overtures to North Korea, they have failed to produce any significant breakthroughs. At the end of the Clinton Administration, for example, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was dispatched to North Korea. But "every time there is deal, North Korea walks away," Robbins said.

North Korea signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985, but eventually withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and continued to build weapons. This week's test was its fourth nuclear test.

The country has been the subject of some kind of international sanctions going back to its alleged involvement in the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 115 people.

In October 2006, it carried out its first underground nuclear bomb test, which experts said was the equivalent of one-third the explosive power of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. More sanctions followed.

North Korea conducted additional underground tests in 2009 and 2013, prompting additional sanctions. The Jan. 6 test was described by North Korean officials as a miniaturized hydrogen bomb, though experts say the seismic readings it produced make that highly unlikely.

In between these underground nuclear blasts, Pyongyang continued to conduct missile and rocket tests. In 2013, when North Korea threatened a preemptive nuclear attack, it was hit with yet another round of counteractions that then-U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice predicted would "bite, and bite hard."

In late 2014, after North Korea allegedly launched a cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment (SNE) in retribution for the studio's production of "The Interview," a comedy based on the execution of North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the U.S. responded with even more economic restrictions.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, those sanctions targeted the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea's intelligence agency; Korean Mining Development Corp.; and Korean Tangun Trading. The two trading companies are responsible for arms exports as well as procuring equipment and raw materials necessary for its atomic weapons and ballistic missile development. In addition, Treasury targeted North Korea's network of trade officials stationed in China, Iran and Syria.