Sanctions are not a Useful Response to North Korea’s Latest Test

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It’s an unfortunate reality that’s often left unsaid: sharp rhetoric and tough international sanctions haven’t deterred North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons program. But American political leaders across the ideological spectrum haven’t been paying attention.

Responding to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously on January 28 to advance a new set of targeted sanctions against the hermit state – the first step to passing the sanctions into law. The House passed its own version of sanctions a few weeks ago.

While Members of Congress may feel positive that they have taken effective action, they should accept that they are simply going through the motions. Instead of this status quo response, the United States must pivot to diplomatic engagement that drops non-workable preconditions for negotiations and bolsters the opportunity for China – in concert with the United States and other international partners – to constructively engage and mitigate the North’s nuclear ambitions.

The pariah nation has gone from the negotiating table with no nuclear weapons at the turn of the century to four recorded nuclear tests as of today – the most recent with disputed claims of a hydrogen explosion.

But today’s situation was not inevitable. William J. Perry, a former Secretary of Defense and later the head of President Clinton’s North Korean Policy Review, has made it clear that a verifiable nuclear weapons accord with North Korea was on the way to being negotiated in the late months of 2000. Then, after President Bush was inaugurated early the next year, his administration scuttled all talks and the accord was never signed.

Sadly, even after a fourth nuclear detonation and with political tensions on the rise, American political leaders remain stuck in the same counterproductive mode. The latest sanctions proposal, in addition to circumventing the president’s ability to sanction at his discretion, will undoubtedly upset China, the only country with enough leverage to influence the hermit state’s nuclear program and a necessary partner for coordinated negotiation.

This is not to say that sanctions are inherently ineffective. But at this point, new sanctions are impotent.

Here’s the reality we need to face: North Korea is wholeheartedly committed to its nuclear program and the status quo has been – and will continue to be – moving in the wrong direction. Whether the latest test was thermonuclear or not, there is no doubt that the North has rapidly advanced its program since the start of the millennium. Further tests and technological development are virtually unavoidable in the current climate.

Put simply, time is not on our side. Failing to change course only ensures one thing: the continued jeopardy of international peace and security.