The new bill was revealed in this column by Josh Rogin, and includes a link to the full text. The bill, which still has no number, will be the Senate’s second version of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, following the introduction by Senators Menendez and Graham of S. 1747 in July.
Both bills follow the lead of Ed Royce and Elliot Engel, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who introduced H.R. 757 in January. H.R. 757, in turn, is the successor to H.R. 1771, which Royce and Engel introduced back in April of 2013, and which passed the full House on a voice vote, with 145 co-sponsors, in July of 2014, but died when the last Congress ended. All three bills share the same title and most of the same content. Despite its all-Republican co-sponsorship, Gardner-Rubio-Risch takes a middle way between those versions, with some important differences and improvements. Collectively, the three bills suggest growing congressional momentum for the NKSEA, which would legislate the most important shift in our North Korea policy since the 1994 Agreed Framework. Here’s Rogin:
Now that Iran sanctions are on the verge of being rolled back, Congressional attention is turning to increasing and tightening sanctions on North Korea, a country with a growing nuclear weapons program and that continues to threaten and provoke the international community.
Oct. 10 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Western governments are concerned that Kim Jong Un will mark the holiday by launching a rocket or satellite, or even detonating a nuclear bomb for the fourth time. There’s new activity at North Korea’s nuclear test site, but nobody really knows what, if anything, the country is planning to do next. [Josh Rogin, Bloomberg]
This, children, is how you eventually attract the wrong kind of attention from Congress. Quoting Gardner:
“This bill actually puts teeth into a policy that has been lacking in action,” he said. “All we are doing right now is talking about what North Korea shouldn’t be doing and following it up with a few cherry-picked sanctions here and there. But that’s not stopping North Korea.”
Of course, the bill is a long way from becoming a law, but support for sanctions against rogue regimes is usually high in Congress, Gardner argued. Even if the bill is enacted, it gives the president national security waivers that could be used to avoid imposing sanctions. In that case, however, the administration would have to explain its inaction.
Following the cyberhack of Sony last year, the Obama administration did use executive orders to sanction 10 North Korean officials and three state-run organizations, including the country’s intelligence service. The White House indicated that there would be other non-public responses. North Korea was already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world.
And Rogin was doing so well, right up until that last sentence. If you’re an OFK regular, just skip to the next paragraph. If you’re not, no, North Korea is not one of the most sanctioned countries in the world. The Treasury Department’s financial sanctions against North Korea — the ones that really matter, even more than U.N. sanctions — are not remotely comparable to our sanctions against Iran or Syria, and they’re arguably weaker than our sanctions against Belarus or Zimbabwe.
Gardner also wants to legislate sanctions on any person, organization, or government that has “materially contributed” to North Korea’s nuclear, ballistic missile, WMD or weapons programs, even in an advisory capacity. That could implicate Iran, but Gardner says that shouldn’t affect the Iran nuclear deal, which lifts many sanctions on Tehran.
Royce, with his good policy instincts and his determination to win and maintain bipartisan support in his committee, rightfully deserves the credit for sparking and leading this rebellion in Congress, and for proposing a credible alternative to years of soft-line policies and non-policies that have failed, conclusively.
For now, both H.R. 757 and the new Senate bill are the most likely to pass their respective chambers, although we still haven’t heard from Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who will have the final word on what goes to the Senate floor. Because the House and Senate bills are different, the bills that pass would then be referred to a conference committee for the resolution of their differences, before both chambers pass an agreed text and send it to the President’s desk.
What’s good about the new bill:
- It makes the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea report directly to the Secretary of State. This is a good step forward for advancing the stature of the position, which had recently been swallowed up by the East Asia Bureau’s agenda. There are, however, always ways to get around provisions like this. Regardless of the bill’s mandate, State can still dictate who gives the Special Envoy her assignments of work, where she sits, or who writes her performance evaluation.
- Section 302, “Strategy to Promote North Korean Human Rights,” is an important and an excellent addition. It requires the President to make the promotion of human rights in the North a greater diplomatic priority, and to build alliances, coalitions, and public support for a stronger approach to the problem.
- The bill retains the all-important element of personal accountability for Kim Jong-Un and his key minions, requiring that they be individually designated, and that their personal assets be blocked, specifically for their human rights abuses. Which is apparently something that U.N. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman welcomes, in light of the paralysis in the U.N. Security Council:
55. In addition to a possible referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, as encouraged by the General Assembly, should consider the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission deemed to constitute crimes against humanity. While the Council has yet to consider taking action on the matter, the Special Rapporteur welcomes the steps that some Member States have begun to take on a bilateral basis in that direction.
- Section 305 is the new bill’s single best contribution. It calls on the State Department to work diplomatically to end other countries’ repatriation of North Korean refugees, and their use of North Korean slave labor (see the same U.N. report for more information about this practice).
What could be better:
- Unlike the House bill, the findings lack any reference to North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, probably as a palliative to State Department objections. (For new readers, I’ve compiled and published the evidence of North Korea’s repeated sponsorship of terrorism here. That evidence was good enough for three federal district courts, one federal appellate court, and at least one South Korean court. Why not State?)
All three bills(Correction: the new bill and H.R. 757) lack some of the more creative funding provisions to use forfeited North Korean property to pay for humanitarian programs, or authorizing the use of blocked North Korean assets to fund carefully monitored food aid programs. (I almost forgot: Menendez-Graham kept them.) There’s a perfectly good argument that those provisions are best dealt with in authorization and appropriations acts instead of a sanctions bill, but let’s remember that the one goal that both sunshiners and hard-liners espouse is the transformation of North Korean society. Empowering North Koreans who share that goal is an important part of a broader policy.
- The new bill lacks H.R. 757’s detailed transaction licensing provisions. With the removal of mandatory blocking of all property of the North Korean government (see Section 104(c) of H.R. 757) the careful regulation of dollar transactions with Pyongyang becomes particularly important. This should be a high priority for resolution at the conference committee.
- I’d like to put in a word for the Connolly Amendment, proposed Rep. Gerry Connolly (D, Va.). It adds “significant progress in planning for unrestricted family reunification meetings” as a condition for suspending the sanctions. I hope that will survive in the final bill that emerges from the conference.
- The rationale for the new exception in Section 106 for the importation of goods is difficult to understand. I see no appetite in either Congress or the executive branch for importing more goods from North Korea; in fact, it was none other than Barack Obama who signed Executive Order 13570 in 2011, severely restricting those imports, and many in Congress seethe with bitter hostility toward Kaesong.
- Arguably, the enhanced inspection authorities in Section 205 should also apply to persons designated under Section 104(b), such as for arms trafficking, and not just 104(a).
- Section 207’s call for travel advisories will do nothing to dissuade gullible people from visiting North Korea. A stronger approach would have been to authorize Treasury to ban transactions incident to travel while Americans were arbitrarily detained there.
- I wish the lifting provision in Section 402 said “U.S. persons” instead of “U.S. citizens,” so that it would cover the Rev. Kim Dong Shik.
Unlike the House’s H.R. 757, both Senate bills remove the mandatory blocking of all property of the North Korean government. Unlike Menendez-Graham, the new Gardner-Rubio-Risch bill puts the key word “shall” back into Section 104(a), which is only logical; the whole logical structure of the bill is based on tiered, conduct-based sanctions. Having two distinct sets of discretionary sanctions with different penalties never made much sense; it just replaced “shall” with “may” to please the State Department. The new Senate bill steers a compromise position that I believe is a sound approach. If the next President enforces Gardner-Rubio-Risch as written, and also takes advantage of the new authority of Executive Order 13687 when necessary, there will be sufficient authority to strand the regime’s offshore billions, while avoiding unintended consequences on North Korea’s poor.
This isn’t a perfect bill, but it’s a very strong one. It’s the work of some of our brightest senators, including freshman rising star Cory Gardner, and Marco Rubio. (At the risk of speaking out of school, I’ll tell you that Rubio personally read every word of a previous version of the bill, clearly understood it, and made many intelligent edits and comments to it. Many members of Congress would simply have relied on their staffs.) Where the new bill is less strong than the House version, it makes smart compromises and leaves room to strengthen the sanctions after future provocations. A combination of all three pending bills, taking the best elements of each, would be an important step forward to slowing Pyongyang’s proliferation, and toward shifting North Korea’s balance of power away from the men with the guns and the food, toward those without.
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Update: The bill is introduced, and has a number: S. 2144. More reporting via Yonhap, The Hill (see also), the Sunshine State News, and the Denver Post. I wasn’t able to attend yesterday’s hearing, but you can see video of it here. (Some sources are calling the bill the “North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act,” but that’s not the title that shows on the text I have.)
On a related note, the U.N. Security Council is also exploring what sanctions on North Korea it will strengthen if His Corpulency goes ahead with a missile test, which it apparently isn’t going to do on October 10th, but as Bruce Klingner notes, it eventually will do. The U.N.S.C. members’ current focus seems to be on expanding the luxury good sanctions, and the U.N.’s laughable list of prohibited exports certainly leaves much room for improvement. While I certainly endorse that approach, I also think they should be looking at blocking North Korean air and maritime shippers, including Air Koryo, whose history of dual use has attracted the attention of the U.N. Panel of Experts. In theory, if North Korea had to depend on foreign shippers for its trade, it would have a harder time, say, hiding missiles under sacks of cement, or MiGs under sacks of sugar.
Latest word, however, is that the launch pads are empty. Who knows, of course, what Pyongyang’s intentions ever were, but I wonder if the warnings dissuaded Pyongyang from going through with it, at least for now.