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North Korea sanctions: Are they meaningless?

Secretary of State Clinton announced new North Korea sanctions Wednesday, but many experts doubt the measures will persuade North Korea to resume talks over its nuclear program.

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“The one approach that has caught North Korea’s attention in the past is financial sanctions that disrupt its access to the international banking system,” says Ken Lieberthal, a senior fellow in foreign policy and a Northeast Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If we are not resorting to any Treasury-Department-sponsored efforts to get at North Korea’s banking activities abroad,” he adds, “there is reason to lack confidence that more sanctions will have any significant effect.”

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The one US action analysts cite as successful: the US Treasury's designation in 2005 of the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia as a primary money launderer of North Korean illicit assets. That action prompted a wave of cooperation from other international financial institutions, including Chinese banks, that had no desire to run afoul of the treasury. North Korea took note, and eventually returned to the six-party nuclear talks, but in exchange for securing the release of $25 million held by Banco Delta Asia.

That deal was tantamount to a backing down by the US, some experts now say, especially since North Korea went on to pursue further nuclear-weapons progress.

“The Banco Delta Asia approach was the single effective stratagem, in part because it had the Chinese leadership on board, and that alarmed the North Koreans,” says Mr. Eberstadt, author of “The End of North Korea.” But, he says, the US “blinked” to get the six-party talks going again, “and once North Korea won that tug-of-war, it created an environment in which North Korea was convinced it could win in successive tugs-of-war with the US.”

But even if the latest sanctions do include serious financial measures that eventually prompt Pyongyang’s return to six-party talks, that could simply be the resumption of a pattern whereby Pyongyang talks while building nukes, analysts say.

“The real question, if the talks resume, is so what?” says Mr. Lieberthal. Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have been successful over two decades at curtailing the North’s nuclear ambitions, he says, adding that the Obama administration “shows no signs of being in the mood to reward North Korea” to prompt its cooperation, a pattern he says the North has become accustomed to.

“So even if the talks resume at some point, would they produce any serious results?” he asks. “I remain very skeptical about that.”

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