While it’s true that isolation and sanctions haven’t normalized North Korea’s politics or behavior, China’s strategy hasn’t worked any better.

First of all, North Korea has isolated itself. Its people are as cut off from the rest of the world as the most remote tribes of Papua New Guinea. Even a country as walled off from the rest of us as Saudi Arabia is vastly more plugged in and integrated into the 21st century. …

Plenty of the Middle East’s ridiculous anti-American conspiracy theories are produced by this sort of thinking. The Middle East is a place where real conspiracies actually happen. Military coups, palace coups, secret police, assassinations by unknown shadowy figures, election fraud, and massive official disinformation are part of the everyday scenery. Because these things are tragically normal over there, people feel helpless and paranoid. They also assume these things are normal for everyone else, that the American government (along with every other government in the world) is just as venal and corrupt and self-serving and murderous as the governments of Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Moammar Qaddafi. These people are projecting their own experiences of the world onto us. They assume their experiences are universal. Until recently in human history, their experiences were practically universal. …

This is what Kristof is doing when he says China is engaging North Korea in order to encourage opening and reform. But that’s not what’s happening. That’s what America would do if we engaged North Korea, but Beijing isn’t Washington.