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Yesterday’s Senate hearing on North Korea policy

Yesterday’s hearing before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee on North Korea policy was a one-panel affair, with no administration witnesses and two experts — Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. The full hearing is on video here.

In his testimony, Snyder called for (of course) strengthening the alliances with South Korea and Japan, tougher secondary sanctions on North Korea’s Chinese enablers, and “that we erode Kim Jong Un’s internal support base by making the argument that North Korean elites can have a better future outside the regime than in it and by increasing the incentives and pathways for them to exit North Korea.”

Eberstadt drove home the point that “engagement” with Pyongyang had been a conclusive failure, defining that strategy broadly to include not only cultural and economic engagement, but also the diplomatic anachronism of trying to buy North Korea into freezing or dismantling its nuclear programs.

First: North Korea is embarked on a steady, methodical, and relentless journey, whose intended endpoint is a credible capacity to hit New York and Washington with nuclear weapons.

Second: America’s policy for nuclear nonproliferation in North Korea is a prolonged, and thoroughly bipartisan, failure.

Third: Our North Korea policy is a failure because our public and our leaders do not understand our adversary and his intentions.

Fourth: We cannot hope to cope successfully with the North Korean threat until we do.

Fifth: Any successful effort to make the North Korean threat smaller will require not just better understanding of this adversary, but also a coherent and sustained strategy of threat reduction informed by such an understanding. [Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI]

Rather than make you wait until my evening commute for a point-by-point summary, I’ll just refer you to Anthony Ruggiero, who live-tweeted the whole thing (just keep scrolling; also, follow him). Ruggiero, of course, was sitting behind the bench no so long ago as a staffer for Senator Rubio and has insider experience from his days in the State and Treasury departments. NK News also reported on the hearing here.

Nothing that Eberstadt, Snyder, or most of the senators said shocked me. Senator Corker, on the other hand, expressed skepticism about “piddling” secondary sanctions and seems to be teetering between accepting North Korea as a nuclear state and preemptive war (or strikes, which could mean war). The flaws in the latter option are self-evident. As to the former, we’re talking about accepting as a nuclear state a regime that thinks it can use cyberterrorism to decide what movies Americans can watch, and that built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS.

Corker’s questions did show interest in subversive information operations and exploiting “pockets” of instability, but he doesn’t seem to grasp the key point that information operations and sanctions aren’t mutually exclusive strategies. In fact, sanctions can complement an information strategy. Freezing the accounts and trading companies that fund the border guards and security forces, for example, can help break down the regime’s capacity to censor information and seal North Korea’s borders. On the bright side, Corker’s questions make Rex Tillerson look great (Corker was widely reported to be on Trump’s short list for Secretary of State). The question now is what team the new administration puts in place, and what policies it will pursue. Here’s hoping that the Asia Subcommittee, which has performed admirably under Senator Gardner’s leadership, will enlighten us on that in the coming months.


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