Robert Potter’s “third way” is a good way, but it’s really a second way

Writing at The Diplomat, Potter takes on the futile task to navigating between pro-engagement extremists like Mike Bassett, Felix Abt, and someone named Joe Terwillager, on one hand, and anti-engagement extremists like me, on the other. Potter proposes this third way:

Sanctions of the right kind can ensure that the Kim dynasty never becomes wealthy enough to close the markets down, but removing them entirely could empower the Kims and make the regime less likely to tolerate change. As for engagement, pointing it towards the people of North Korea and working to empower their underground economy could allow those market forces to develop further. This combination of sanctions and support for the developing markets is perhaps the only truly different policy option that has not yet been tested, and it is one that could mobilize the two existing highly divided constituencies. [Robert Potter, The Diplomat]

I enjoyed Mr. Potter’s piece so much that I hardly have the heart to point out that I’ve advocated the same ideas for years. As I must occasionally point out, however, I’m not opposed to engagement, I just think we’ve been engaging the wrong people.

Nor have I ever believed that sanctions alone could transform North Korea. They can only do that as part of a broader strategy, along with subversive information operations and competent diplomacy that seeks international consensus toward forcing real change. Sanctions can target the regime’s military, elites, security forces, and border control. If sustained, they would shift the balance of economic power toward the common people, and toward a nascent middle class that the regime has done its best to tread down.


  1. The sina qua non for true market reforms in North Korea is the collapse of the regime. Any investment preceding that necessary condition merely prolongs the retrograde status quo and prolongs the suffering of its people.


  2. An article appeared in The Washington Post yesterday that illustrates how confused the “engagement” approach can get. It describes a “unification” camp for junior high school girls in South Korea. The camp organizers assume the two Koreas will unify not too far in the future, and they want to teach South Korean youngsters about the north. Great! But I was brought up short when one young girl reportedly said, “I had only negative thoughts about North Korea and the North Korean system before, but I like them more now.” Now she likes the North Korean SYSTEM? Well, yes, and that’s seen as a triumph by the organizers, one of whom was quoted as saying, “Understanding and accepting the differences counts as progress.” Do they mean accepting tyranny counts as progress? The reporter didn’t ask. Here’s a link to the full article: