Asia watchers were briefly roused last week with the news that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his guest, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, released a joint statement condemning North Korea’s nuclear program and calling it a “serious threat” to peace in East Asia. So far so good; making such public pronouncements at least solidifies the moral ground against North Korea that has sometimes been lacking in the past. It also serves to gradually erode, however tentatively, the basis for China’s continued support for the North. However, Washington should not endorse the second part of the Xi-Park statement, which calls for a return to the Six Party Talks. That forum is discredited and a dead-end. It is used solely by North Korea to buy months and years of negotiating time during which it continues to perfect its nuclear and missile programs. The Obama administration wisely avoided that dialogue dependency trap during the first few years of its initial term, but then rushed into an ill-advised agreement in 2012 that resulted in the usual North Korean lying and breaking of agreements. Since then, Pyongyang’s invective has equaled the lowest depths of the past, while fears of conflict raged at fever pitch back in the spring.
It looks like the administration got the message, at least for now. Though Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that he was willing to diplomatically re-engage with the Kim regime, the administration last week announced it was increasing sanctions against a North Korean bank used to help fund the illicit weapons programs, as well as against a North Korean nuclear research official, according to the New York Times. This is a step in the right direction, though the administration has been too willing in the past to allow China to water down proposed UN sanctions. Working with a coalition of partners to effectively freeze the cash that fuels both the North’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as the sybaritic lifestyle of the Kim regime’s leaders, is by far the most effective and moral route available to the West. Our options in dealing with North Korea remain frustratingly limited, due in no small part to our own weakness in the past. Diplomacy is the preferred method of many in Washington, despite its utter failure in curbing the North’s menace. Yet the administration is right in ratcheting up the financial pressure on Pyongyang. Now it needs to ensure that it doesn’t follow Beijing and Seoul’s lead, at least until real change in the North’s behavior is unmistakable.