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North Korea

Pyongyang is not afraid of sanctions

North Korea has reacted to new sanctions by vowing to expand its nuclear arsenal. Eric Ballach tells DW why Pyongyang is so confident.

DW: How much are the latest sanctions going to affect North Korea?

The decision to tighten the sanctions came after a very long series of negotiations, especially between China and the US, who could not come to an agreement after the rocket launch last December. China has often been hesitant about such sanctions because it is interested in a stable North Korea as its long-time ally. The latest sanctions aren't that harsh. They will affect six companies and four individuals directly linked to the rocket launch.

It would surprise me if this move were to have a long-term impact on North Korea. There have been sanctions against North Korea since the 1950s and they've learned how to deal with them. The move comes as a direct reaction to the rocket launch and it's an attempt to slow down North Korea's nuclear armament but it won't stop the process.

Eric J. Ballbach (E. Felden/DW Asien)

Eric J. Ballbach is not hopeful the most recent sanctions will have much impact

How can China's behavior be seen?

China's vote in favor of the sanctions will of course be very irritating for North Korea. The "yes" came after a long series of negotiations. The international community has voiced outrage since last summer when it emerged that China had not upheld the already existing sanctions against North Korea. Maybe this put more pressure on China to agree to these new sanctions, which are more symbolic than anything else.

China is one of the few states to have a real influence on North Korea and China does not really want to compromise this. North Korea is too important for China, in all kinds of ways. But from the North Korean point of view, China is no longer really a watertight ally. China is of course extremely important for North Korea, especially in economic terms. However, the fact that it's continuing its nuclear program shows that North Korea now regards this ally with some skepticism. There is an idea that almost all influence from abroad is negative - this also now goes for China.

Has the clear answer from Pyongyang surprised you at all? There were some conciliatory tones from North Korea - for example in Kim Jong Un's New Year's speech?

No, it didn't really surprise me because the two processes have to be separated. On the one hand, there's an economic process linked to legitimizing Kim Jong Un and his regime. They hope to legitimize their position through economic progress. At the same time, the military continues to play the most important role and Kim Jong Un's accession to power has done nothing to change this. In the end, an either/or decision will always serve the military. These two processes - economic and military expansion do not necessarily contradict each other from a North Korean point of view.

There's also a new person at the top in South Korea - President-Elect Park Geun-hye. There was a certain sense of optimism the relationship between the North and South could improve after the cooling down of recent years. How much have these latest developments jeopardized the hoped-for new beginning?

That will all depend on the strategic decisions the new government in South Korea makes. Will questions about security policy be separated from other matters to do with inter-Korean relations, such as economic cooperation, cultural cooperation or humanitarian exchange? If the Park administration allows all areas to be determined by security policy like the outgoing Lee Myung-bak government then it will probably be skeptical towards other forms of inter-Korean cooperation.

The two governments which preceded Lee Myung-bak's - under Presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung - both made the strategic decision of separating security policy and instead promoting inter-Korean relations when there were security setbacks. A lot now depends on the line the new government decides to take. If it makes inter-Korean relations dependent on security policy then we can't expect much progress. But it is very possible that there will be cooperation, especially in non-political areas.

Ester Felden spoke to Eric J. Ballbach from the Institute for Korean Studies at Berlin's Free University.

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