The Magazine

What's Going on in Pyongyang?

North Korea responds to sticks, not carrots.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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And, so far, other nations are cooperating in the general effort. China, in June, seems to have exerted pressure on Burma to not allow a North Korean freighter, which was thought to be carrying an illicit cargo, to dock. In July, Italy seized two yachts bound for the North. China announced it had confiscated a shipment of vanadium--used to stiffen steel in missile casings--and suspended a bronze mining project in North Korea with a company targeted by U.N. sanctions. Japan obtained the guilty plea of a company boss for exporting tanker trucks, possibly for use in the North's missile program. Last month, the United Arab Emirates seized an Australian ship carrying North Korean small arms to Iran.

The State Department's Philip Goldberg is in charge of American efforts to enforce sanctions on Pyongyang, and he has been racking up the miles making sure that Asian nations tighten their rules. He's optimistic. "We've seen some indication that the overall effort is working," he said in Tokyo late last month. "Our goal is to return to the process of denuclearization," Goldberg said, in an earlier stopover in Seoul.

That was also the goal of the Bush administration when in September 2005 it designated a Macau bank, which had been handling North Korea's funds, a primary money laundering concern. This cut the bank off from the global financial system, and North Korean diplomats were suddenly carrying large amounts of cash in suitcases. Pyongyang was forced to return to the bargaining table to talk about its nuclear weapons program. President Bush, unfortunately, lifted the effective sanction too early, and Kim Jong Il rewarded Washington's leniency by boycotting the disarmament talks. The risk now is that the Obama administration will also ease its measures before the North completely, verifiably, and irreversibly gives up its nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, this could happen. Last Friday, the State Department reversed a longtime policy by announcing it would participate in bilateral negotiations with North Korea outside the framework of the six-party talks.

So we will now find out if the Obama administration, in the face of North Korea's smile diplomacy, can maintain momentum in keeping the global community together behind sanctions. "We just want to make sure that the government of North Korea is operating within the basic rules of the international community," Obama said in August. The North Korean state is not following the rules, and, in any event, that goal is not good enough. If we have learned anything over the course of six decades, it is that the Kim regime cannot accept global norms.

Kim Dae-jung once observed that the North Koreans "keep making the same mistakes over and over again." The United States is guilty of repeating old errors as well. That is perhaps the major reason why a destitute North Korea so often gets the better of the world's most powerful state.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World (Random House).