Feel-Good Foreign Policy toward North Korea Won’t Help

Dealing with North Korea brings to mind Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king condemned for eternity to roll a stone up a hill, only to watch it roll back down. Whatever the U.S. does, Kim Jong-un again will fire missiles, test nukes, and threaten to lay waste to his enemies.

Now the Obama administration has applied sanctions to him personally, though for human rights violations, not security concerns. The State Department explained that Kim was “ultimately responsible” for what it termed “North Korea’s notorious abuses of human rights.”

There are many, of course. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ain’t a nice place for anyone other than the Kim family and friends.

Now any property owned by Kim and ten of his top officials in the U.S. will be frozen. And Americans will be prohibited from doing business with them. The administration predicted that “Lifting the anonymity of these functionaries may make them think twice from time to time when considering a particular act of cruelty.” Seriously?

The North’s abuses are great and the American frustrations are real. Unfortunately, imposing penalties without impact won’t turn Kim into a born-again humanitarian. And his subordinates more likely fear a god-king who has executed some 400 of his own officials, including his uncle, than the prospect of their name ending up on a list in Foggy Bottom.

This is feel good policy at its worst.

Kim isn’t the only foreign dictator who can’t do business in America. Others have been blacklisted. But, unsurprisingly, to no effect.

If the principle makes sense, the list should start with the leaders of China and Russia. Sanctions also belong on the rulers of U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And many more states.

Sanctions can be a useful policy tool. But they should serve a purpose. They also should have a possibility of achieving their objective.

Moreover, there is a downside. It will be harder for both the U.S. and North to shift course and begin a dialogue. In the case of North Korea, there is no military solution and sanctions so far have not changed DPRK nuclear policy. With Pyongyang responding to isolation by continuing its missile and nuclear programs, a bilateral conversation at some point seems necessary and inevitable.

But that now would require the U.S.to engage a regime headed by someone under direct sanction. And Kim would have to swallow his pride and accept the appearance of being a supplicant seeking favor from those threatening him. Negotiating something useful always would be difficult without adding a new obstacle.

While targeted sanctions avoid punishing a largely helpless population in the hopes of influencing a regime which cares little about its people, they have yet to actually bring any government to heel. Such penalties appear to be most effective in allowing officials to satisfy critics and feel good by doing something without actually doing anything—useful, anyway.

Doing so actually encourages policymakers to ignore problems as they worsen. Like North Korea. The North is steadily adding to its nuclear weapons and improving its missiles, as well as abusing its population.

Current policy, essentially to isolate him, has failed. As I wrote in the National Interest: “Instead of trying something new, Washington will confiscate Kim’s nonexistent bank account and consider its work done.”

Policymakers must grapple with the tough issues. What should U.S. policy be toward the North as a de facto nuclear power? Is it worth negotiating with Pyongyang over issues other than denuclearization? There are no easy answers, but Washington’s time would be better spent addressing these issues than in concocting fanciful punishments for the North’s leader.

No one can blame President Barack Obama for not wanting to end up like Sisyphus. However, imposing personal sanctions on Kim looks like an act of desperation: nothing else has worked, so why not try this? Unfortunately, they may make it even harder to find a workable solution to the North Korea Problem.