The UN sanctions approved Saturday against North Korea won't really roll back its nuclear program. Yes, they partly punish the North for its atomic test and may block bomb exports. But the real target is likely Iran and others eyeing the bomb.
The sanctions imposed by the Security Council, even though watered down by China and Russia, at least keep a global consensus together for a more critical goal of the United States: threatening the economies of Iran and other bomb-leaning states if they get close to going nuclear.
Achieving that goal of preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and elsewhere depends on how much the new sanctions bite North Korea's economy and weaken the regime of Kim Jong Il in coming months. It will be difficult to punish a dictator who isolates his own nation and whose foolish policies led to an estimated 2 million North Koreans starving in the past decade.
Mr. Kim's own survival has long depended in large part on fuel and food aid from China, a giant neighbor that has shown in the past that it will ratchet down such aid to influence its troublesome ally. It recently reduced food aid by two-thirds following the North's missile tests in July.
But during the UN negotiations over sanctions, China remained unwilling to really bring North Korea to heel, even though it defied Beijing with its nuclear test. It has other, overriding interests, such as weakening America's dominance in Asia and preventing a flood of North Korean refugees into northern China.
And the US, too, even though it must now worry about North Korean atomic weapons being sold to Islamic terrorists, wasn't willing to severely press Beijing to turn off its aid spigot. President Bush, despite having once proclaimed that a North Korean bomb would not be tolerated, now prefers stable economic and business ties with China over tougher sanctions.
South Korea, too, wasn't willing to be so tough on its northern cousins that the North would then collapse and force an unwelcomed reunification that would set back South Korea's economy for years.
The result was limited sanctions: a financial freeze, tighter inspections of its ships, and a ban on travel by senior officials and on sales of luxuries and heavy conventional weapons. But will they also force other bomb-bent nations away from following Pyongyang's lead?
This type of squeeze-but-don't-strangle action would likely work better against Iran, if ever applied, because its leaders face unrest from masses of jobless youth and internal dissent over ties with the West. Such tensions are difficult to detect in Orwellian North Korea.
Threatening Iran requires maintaining a multilateral approach, as the US has done by letting Europe take the lead in negotiations with the Islamic state. In turn, the US wisely kept a similar multilateral approach in the six-nation talks with North Korea – a move that made last week's consensus at the UN easier and quicker.
Keeping alive the idea that the world can prevent nuclear nonproliferation is essential to global peace, despite each setback. If the sanctions on North Korea aren't tough enough to make either it or the Irans of the world think twice, then the UN will need to revisit them.