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North Korea urges citizens to ‘break through barriers’ as nuclear standoff continues

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SEOUL (Reuters) — While a North Korean deadline for the United States to soften its stand on denuclerization talks passed uneventfully over the New Year, state media and propaganda efforts have been focusing on the prospect of a long confrontation with the United States.

Optimism that two years of contacts between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump would usher in a new age, and related hopes for economic improvement after decades of deprivation, appear to have faded.

Instead, the government has been hard at work in recent weeks using state media, propaganda posters, and performances to warn the public of a bumpy road ahead under U.S. and international pressure.

The propaganda effort has included calls for North Koreans to “break through barriers” and strengthen the country.

The weekend’s Lunar New Year celebrations included a concert for Kim and other dignitaries with tributes to the country’s leaders for overcoming adversity.

It is a familiar message for North Koreans, but one that now underscores that the leadership does not foresee a breakthrough in diplomacy any time soon.

“The message will be that because of the U.S. hostile policy and sanctions, that things will be more difficult for the foreseeable future,” said Andray Abrahamian, a visiting scholar with George Mason University Korea.

Behind the scenes, North Korean officials still say they are seeking badly needed sanctions relief, said one European scholar who regularly attends informal meetings with North Korean representatives.

Publicly, North Korea has said it is no longer bound by commitments to halt nuclear and missile testing, blaming the United States for failing to meet the year-end deadline for it to show more flexibility in the nuclear talks and its “brutal and inhumane” sanctions.

Since Kim came to power in 2011, many North Koreans have steadily seen living conditions improve compared with deprivation and even famines of the 1990s.

In 2018, Kim doubled down by declaring the “completion” of the nuclear weapons program would allow the government to focus on economic development.

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