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Replace Failed Diplomacy with Sanctions on North Korea

“Some dialogue is better than none, and better early than late,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at his press conference on Saturday in Beijing, talking about China’s hopes for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

These remarks seem to be directed against the US for not wanting to resume the long-stalled six-party talks. Beijing has been trying to jumpstart the discussions, begun in August 2003, after North Korea abandoned them in April 2009. Russia, Japan, and South Korea are participants along with China, North Korea, and the US.

The Obama administration had tried hard to come to terms with Kim Jong Un, who took over as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the death of his father in December 2011. In early 2012, Washington had even reached an interim arrangement, termed the Leap Day Deal because it was announced on February 29th. In return for 240,000 tons of food aid, the North promised to stop work on a uranium-enrichment facility in Yongbyon, suspend nuclear and missile tests, and permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country.

“The deal is no permanent solution,” wrote Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies moments after the agreement was announced. Unfortunately, he was more right than he could have known at the time. The arrangement, incredibly, did not survive the following April. Kim fired off what looked like a ballistic missile that month—his regime instead claimed its Unha-3 “rocket” was carrying a satellite—and recriminations left relations worse than at the beginning of that year. North Korea, unfortunately, was not ready to deal with the international community in good faith. In all probability, it has no intentions to do so now.

On one level, this has not bothered Beijing. As Wang Yi’s comments indicate, China has never given up trying to put the six-party talks back on track. It is not entirely clear, however, what the Chinese think discussions with Kim can accomplish at this moment. And Washington, for its part, has played along, regularly sending envoys to Beijing and Seoul and exploring avenues for achieving progress.

Yet the diplomacy of both Beijing and Washington seems half-hearted, a sign that both sides know they need new approaches. From the American perspective, neither direct contact with the Kim regime nor working through the Chinese has been productive, either during this administration or the preceding one.

The White House, fearful of failure, does not now look like it will try another diplomatic push, and given current challenges in Ukraine and elsewhere, may not have the time to devote to the Korean peninsula in any event.

So what can be done at this time? In an obvious policy vacuum, the more conservative elements in Washington are thinking of bolstering the sanctions regime. The Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner recently pointed out the vulnerabilities of Kim’s state to coercive measures, so this looks like a particularly good time for Congress to take up the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2013, introduced last April by Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Royce bill, which now has 133 cosponsors, tightens sanctions across the board and perhaps most importantly, pushes the US Treasury to declare North Korea a “primary money laundering concern,” further isolating Kim and his allies from the international financial system.

Beijing, for more than a decade, has tried to convince Washington that the North reciprocates friendly gestures. As a result, the administration of George W. Bush returned frozen funds to Pyongyang in June 2007 and removed Kim’s odious government from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in October 2008. The North Koreans, however, pocketed both concessions and soon withdrew from the six-party talks. Moreover, in 2012 they tried to grab aid and, despite their promise not to do so, still tested their long-range launcher.

Foreign Minister Wang, who talks about the need to disarm Pyongyang, has gotten matters backward when he promotes dialogue. To achieve denuclearization, he should first be giving Kim Jong Un an incentive to talk. Beijing, therefore, should be restricting trade, aid, investment, and tourism.

Wang, after all, should “learn from history,” as his government is so fond of telling others. If denuclearization has really been its goal, Beijing’s friendly approach to North Korea over the course of years has been a complete failure.

And so has ours. Now is the time for Washington to reverse course and tighten sanctions. Nothing else, unfortunately, has worked.

Sometimes, no dialogue is better than some, and late is preferable to early.

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