Sanctions Are Good for Diplomacy, But Diplomacy Won’t Disarm North Korea

Despite warnings from the foreign policy establishment (most notably, Selig Harrison and Ralph Cossa, among many others) that sanctioning North Korea would drive North Korea away from disarmament talks, the opposite seems to be happening — the election of a seemingly liberal administration brought only provocations from North Korea, while tough sanctions are forcing them to feign interest in disarming:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told a visiting Chinese envoy he will work to end his country’s nuclear arms programme through multilateral talks in an apparent breakthrough, but similiar vows in the past have not been met with action. [….]

North Korea has made conciliatory moves in recent weeks, including the release of U.S. journalists it had held for illegal entry, in what analysts said was a way to replenish its coffers after it had been hit by sanctions for nuclear and missile tests.

“Kim Jong-il … said North Korea will continue adhering towards the goal of denuclearisation … and is willing to resolve the relevant problems through bilateral and multilateral talks,” China’s Xinhua news agency said. [Reuters, Jack Kim]

But South Korean officials, including President Lee Myung-bak, have cautioned against any hasty optimism, saying North Korea has shown no willingness to disarm.

They say North Korea’s recent conciliatory gestures came because it feels the pain of U.N. sanctions on its weapons exports and financial dealings that were imposed after it conducted a nuclear test in May. [AP, Kwang-Tae Kim]

Not that I believe North Korea would ever voluntarily disarm, so let’s not mistake North Korea’s not-necessarily-hostile policy for material progress. But it is proof, if more were needed, that the “engagement” school of North Korea policy is wrong. The fact that the Obama Administration continues to say that sanctions will remain in place until North Korea verifiably disarms suggests that this particular species of stupidity has been marginalized.

If only for that reason, Kim Jong Il’s reversal is progress. The next test will be whether the Obama Administration can hold to the principle it has staked out. If it does, it will eventually have to confront the fact that North Korea isn’t going to disarm, and that China will try, ever so gradually, to restore its financial support for Kim Jong Il. How will we respond then?

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