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The stainless-steel milk cans are built to carry 20 litres of liquids, which in North Korea are sometimes moved by car, sometimes by bicycle. For First Steps, they are a valuable way of getting soy milk to the daycares, kindergartens and orphanages the Vancouver-based charity supports. In 2017, First Steps bought 300 milk cans to send to North Korea.

But nearly two years later, the cans, worth US$90 each, continue to sit at their manufacturer in Wenzhou, in Southern China, blocked by the tangle of sanctions intended to cut North Korea off from the world. Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump boasted about imposing “the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country” in his efforts to push North Korea to denuclearize.

Now, with Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un both in Vietnam on the eve of a second major summit, those milk cans constitute a symbol of the unexpected consequences of an international campaign to force the isolated regime to abandon its nuclear weapons. While humanitarian groups, including First Steps and the World Food Programme (WFP), struggle to help the poorest members of an impoverished country, there is little sign the sanctions have pushed the regime to act. The effort to move the milk cans “amounts to a dystopian saga for us,” First Steps executive director Susan Ritchie said.

Kim Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations has distributed a letter, reported by NBC last week, that warned of severe food shortages this year following severe floods and droughts – while also faulting the “barbaric and inhuman sanctions” that have interfered with the import of farm implements, fertilizer and other agricultural necessities.

That matches what Ms. Ritchie has seen – in December, she went to one part of North Korea that had, earlier, flooded with nearly a half-year’s rain in a single night, destroying 40 per cent of crops; in another place, crops were hurt when temperatures hit 39 degrees, shattering the previous record of 31.

But few observers believe that North Korea has been brought to the table by sanctions pain.

“The North Koreans have made a conscious decision to focus on economic development. And because of that, we’re having negotiations with North Korea,” said Carl Baker, a former U.S. Air Force officer with extensive experience on the Korean Peninsula who is now executive director of Pacific Forum, a foreign-policy research institute. “It’s not that the North Koreans said, ‘Wow these sanctions are really hurting.’ ”

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Indeed, rice sold in the country has shown no signs of the price instability that might suggest food shortages, noted Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, co-editor of the North Korean Economy Watch website.

“There’s very little evidence that the economy is so squeezed, and in such an urgent, dire state, that the government has no choice but to make concessions on its nuclear weapons and missiles,” he said an interview by e-mail.

“If things were that bad, we’d have reports of major shortages, a strong regime of rationing for key goods like fuel, major price hikes on the markets, and the like. And we don’t.”

It’s an indication of North Korea’s savvy in avoiding the obstacles set against it.

Sanctions are nonetheless likely to form part of talks this week, with Mr. Trump indicating a willingness to provide some relaxation, as part of a path to denuclearization.

“The North Koreans have made clear in speeches over the last few months that in their view, sanctions relief would be a demonstrable sign by the United States that we have no hostile intent toward the North Korean regime or the people,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a think tank. Accomplishing that, too, will allow for greater economic growth, “so that they can ensure the security of the Kim regime in the absence of nuclear weapons.”

But it’s not clear any of those changes will open the door for the First Steps milk cans or other goods effectively barred from North Korea at the moment.

It took First Steps nearly eight months to secure the two permissions it needed from the Canadian government to send the cans to North Korea. By the time those were secured in February, 2018, the group’s shipping company pulled out. First Steps provides a daily cup of soy milk to 100,000 North Korean children and primarily sends soy beans and micronutrient sprinkles to the country. Sanctions specifically exempt humanitarian goods, but the charity has nonetheless been dropped by freight forwarding companies in Canada, Germany and the United States – the latter just last week, leaving it looking for another firm to handle shipments.

The WFP has encountered similar problems, citing in its most recent country brief the “unintended impacts of sanctions.” Those “include the breakdown of supply chains, causing delays in the transportation of vital goods into [the] country and hampering the production and distribution of fortified foods.” In particular, WFP said, “there is a six-month lead time for international procurement and shipping, and ship owners are reluctant to send their vessels to DPRK because of lengthy cargo inspections and fines.” (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the formal name for North Korea.)

The letter written by the UN ambassador also notes lengthy five-month delays for the Food and Agriculture Organization to bring mobile water pumps to North Korea. Last year, a Geneva-based aid organization halted grants to North Korea for the treatment of tuberculosis patients, citing the country’s “unique operating conditions,” prompting a warning by a Harvard physician in The Lancet medical journal of a possible “humanitarian and public-health crisis.”

For First Steps, by the time it was prepared to ship the milk cans, new sanctions restricted shipments of metal products to North Korea. The milk cans required special permission from a UN sanctions committee. That didn’t come through until Jan. 18.

Then in mid-February, the charity received notice from a freight forwarder in China that Chinese customs was throwing up another obstacle, demanding documentation that has so far been impossible to secure.

“There’s so many walls that have gone up,” Ms. Ritchie said.

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