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No Pain for North Korea, No Gain for the U.S.

The Obama administration has announced new sanctions in response to North Korea's sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last March. 

There appears to be little new in this announcement that will make North Korea feel much additional pain. 

The U.S. already has comprehensive sanctions on North Korea blocking virtually all trade. 

Two U.N. Security Council resolutions passed in the last decade after a flurry of North Korean missile tests and their first nuclear test--Security Council resolutions 1695 and 1718--banned trade in arms and luxury goods like this between North Korea and all U.N. members.

What would impress North Korea more is if the sanctions were focused exclusively on cutting the country off from the international financial system.

This was done with some success when a Macau-based bank used by North Korea was sanctioned in 2005. Foreign banks can be given a de facto death sentence by preventing them from conducting transactions denominated in U.S. dollars. 

Those 2005 sanctions were the most effective measure used against North Korea in recent decades and forced them to seriously negotiate because they threatened the flow of cash on which the regime survives. 

Unfortunately, the sanctions were traded away for essentially nothing in return. 

The only trade relationship on which North Korea truly depends is the one it has with China. While Beijing is supposed to curtail most trade with North Korea under U.N. sanctions, in practice is does not comply. 

China also provides North Korea with fuel.  Most of the foreign capital in North Korea originates from China. 

In the past, the U.S. has been far too optimistic about China's willingness to cooperate with us and comply with international obligations. 

China itself is good at professing cooperation and then doing the opposite--essentially propping up a North Korean regime that it prefers to the alternative of a democratic and unified Korea.

More important than the sanctions announcement are the military exercises under way between the U.S. and South Korea

We have typically had large joint exercises each year, and this is supplementary to that based on a strong naval show of force. This is an appropriate reaction to North Korea's military aggression, but we need to convince Pyongyang that we are going to remain firm. 

All too often, strong statements and activities like this from the U.S. and South Korea have been followed with concessions and foreign aid meant to coax North Korea back to the negotiating table. These "carrots" have unfortunately helped the North Korean regime survive. 

Ideally, we should increase our strategic capabilities in North Korea to offset its emerging nuclear capability. 

This should include a discussion between the U.S., South Korea and Japan of moving intermediate range nuclear forces into the region. 

Doing so would match the new nuclear threat from North Korea and show Kim Jong Il that there is a negative consequence to his belligerence. 

It would also demonstrate to the Chinese that their security is diminished by the actions of their North Korean ally, which might convince them at long last to get tough with Pyongyang.

Finally, we should work to help the North Korean people undermine the North Korean regime from within.

 We should stand unabashedly for their human rights and help connect them with the outside world--just as we have in the past with other democracy movements.

Christian Whiton was a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is a principal at D.C. Asia Advisory and president of the Hamilton Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ChristianWhiton

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Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09.  He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).