GOP heavyweights push for secondary boycott of North Korea

Six Republican senators — Ted Cruz (TX), Cory Gardner (CO), Thom Tillis (NC), Marco Rubio (FL), Pat Toomey (PA) and David Perdue (GA) — have signed a letter to newly confirmed Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin* calling for improved implementation and enforcement of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhnancement Act (NKSPEA).

As Kim Jung-un has exposed his willingness to increase ballistic missile testing with the ultimate goal of achieving nuclear breakout, the potential for this regime to attain a developed and capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) poses an imminent threat that cannot be ignored,” the senators wrote. “North Korea’s test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile this past weekend demonstrates advancement in fuel and launch technology, underscoring the necessity of faithfully executing the law to meet this growing threat. [Sen. Ted Cruz]

The letter (the full text is here, and it’s an absolute must-read) proposes ten actions that President Obama never got around to, that would substantially improve the effectiveness of sanctions: (1) designate North Korea’s remaining banks; (2) hire enough cops and lawyers to enforce the sanctions; (3) invoke more Patriot Act special measures to require record-keeping and reporting on North Korean beneficial owners; (4) talk to Rex Tillerson about re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism; (5) replace our weak and outdated North Korea sanctions regulations; (6) strictly enforce Know-Your-Customer and reporting rules on North Korean banking transactions; (7) investigate the banks involved in the Dandong Hongxiang and Chinpo Shipping cases; (8) enforce the law against any bank caught providing North Korean banks with direct or indirect correspondent account services; (9) work to cut North Korea out of SWIFT; and (10) show some willingness to impose secondary sanctions on Chinese sanctions violators.

That’s a good list — a very good list. I couldn’t have written it better myself (OK, maybe slightly, but only slightly).

The instigator and drafter of this letter is the man some now refer to as The New Ted Cruz. Although I’m not nearly as conservative as Cruz is on some issues, Cruz deserves commendation for stepping forward to lead on this issue, despite not even being a member of the Foreign Relations Committee or previously showing particular interest in foreign policy. (Tillis and Toomey aren’t Committee members, either; kudos** to them for signing on.) And while we’ve come to know Gardner and Rubio as leaders on North Korea policy, this episode also teaches us the importance of being willing to follow when someone else proposes good ideas. Rubio and Gardner in particular are highly respected in the Senate for their intellect and understanding of foreign affairs. It’s to their credit that they added their heft and gravitas to the letter by signing on. In doing so, they’re shaping the new administration’s policy at an early and malleable stage, when Trump probably needs all the good advice he can get.

Also deserving similar credit is Edwin Feulner, a (the?) founder of the Heritage Foundation and (so I’ve read in various press accounts) a man Donald Trump listens to. Yonhap also calls Feulner a leading candidate to be our next Ambassador to South Korea. Feulner sat down for an interview with Yonhap’s Chang Jae-soon and Shim In-sung, where he expressed similar views to those of the Gang of Six:

“I think anything that happens post January 20, 2017 is a test and is a challenge to President Trump and that President Trump takes anything that happens while he is the President of the U.S. he is going to take it very seriously,” Feulner said of the missile launch.

Increasing pressure on North Korea, including making China, through secondary sanctions, use more of its leverage over Pyongyang as the main provider of food and energy assistance, would be a key part of Trump’s policy on the North, Feulner said.

“Mr. Trump … will be expecting China to do a lot more. The notion of economic pressure on North Korea is one that Mr. Trump understands. Mr. Trump is not going to be reluctant to use his willingness to invoke secondary boycotts, for example, of organizations in North Korea or in China that are pass-through entities for exports from North Korea to cut off even more economic help,” Feulner said.

“Mr. Trump … will not hesitate to employ more significant measures,” he said. [Yonhap]

Also encouraging was Feulner’s call to bring more attention to North Korea’s crimes against humanity, and to appoint a “widely recognized, respected ambassador” for human rights issues, as mandated by the North Korean Human Rights Act (which is up for reauthorization this year, and will be reauthorized).

The rumor of Feulner’s potential nomination as ambassador may be the most encouraging news I’ve heard about the Trump administration so far. Historically, Korea only got the attention it deserved in Washington when ambassadors have had strong political pull and close relationships with the President. And while it’s hard to think of someone with better judgment or public diplomacy talents than Mark Lippert, Feuler’s combination of close ties to Korea, political strength in Washington, good policy instincts, and understanding of the subject matter would make him an outstanding candidate for the job as the North Korea crisis reaches a critical phase.

Most of what the six senators and Feulner said also sounds consistent with what Rex Tillerson, Yun-Byung-se, and Fumio Kishida said after their first trilateral meeting this week, in Germany.

“The ministers condemned in the strongest terms North Korea’s February 12, 2017 ballistic missile test, noting North Korea’s flagrant disregard for multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions that expressly prohibit its ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” the three countries said in a joint statement.

“Secretary Tillerson reiterated that the United States remains steadfast in its defense commitments to its allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, including the commitment to provide extended deterrence, backed by the full range of its nuclear and conventional defense capabilities,” it said.

The sides pledged to collaborate to ensure that all countries fully carry out U.N. Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang and that violations of Security Council resolutions will be met with an “even stronger international response,” according to the statement.

The top diplomats urged Pyongyang to refrain from provocative actions and “abandon its proscribed nuclear and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner” and comply with all U.N. resolutions, the statement said.

“Only in this way can North Korea be accepted as a responsible member of the international community,” it said.

The sides also agreed to continue to draw international attention to the North’s “systemic, widespread, and gross violations” of human rights. [Yonhap]

That latter point is an important one, not only from an ethical or a legal perspective, but from a utilitarian one. Since the release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, Pyongyang has shown surprising vulnerability to criticism on human rights, to the point where that criticism may be affecting the cohesion of the elites and the stability of the regime itself. It will not be any single vulnerability that convinces the generals there that they have no future on the path set by Kim Jong-un, but a combination of vulnerabilities — financial, diplomatic, and political, both foreign and domestic — converging at once. It’s gratifying to see that the Americans (Update: well, some of them, anyway) who will have the most influence over the future of Korea understand what those vulnerabilities are.

~   ~   ~

* Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing is here. It’s about 5 hours long, in case you have a long weekend coming up and no life.

** Previously said “kudus.” Since corrected, although I wouldn’t mind “kudus” myself. As I can testify from personal experience, kudu is delicious.

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Trump struggles on North Korea, but it’s still the first quarter (updated)

By this time tomorrow, we’ll know whether initial reports that Kim Jong-nam was assassinated by two North Korean women with a poison needle at the Kuala Lumpur Airport were wrong or only half-wrong. For now, I’ll dwell on grading the Trump administration’s answers to its first North Korean test — the test of a missile system whose moderate range belies its potential dangerousness, given its potential to be launched from a mobile carrier or a submarine. So far, that grade is a C-minus, but it’s still only the first quarter.

No doubt, the North Koreans knew that Trump would get the news during dinner with Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Largo. That Trump devoted two days to meeting with Abe and restoring the confidence of an important ally is praiseworthy. Trump’s immediate reaction to the test, however, attracted criticism that he, Abe, and their aides held a sensitive (and perhaps, classified) discussion in an open, non-secure area. That was followed by a short, overly cautious, obviously scripted (good!) statement from a glowering Trump, who said nothing except that he would stand by Japan. The next day, Trump called North Korea “a big, big problem” and promised, without elaborating, to “deal with that very strongly.” So?

So, the administration is hinting at another Air Force flyover in Korea. That’s fine for reassuring the South Koreans, but I strongly doubt that Kim Jong-un cares.

The U.S., South Korea, and Japan also agreed to take the matter straight to the U.N., but they walked away with no better than a pro-formastatement, which has no legal effect. I didn’t expect a resolution, but I would have at least expected Trump to direct Ambassador Haley to push for some additional U.N. designations — of Air Koryo, the Korean National Insurance Corporation, various slave-labor exporters, or at the very least, some additional ships (such as those the Obama administration recently undesignated). It’s possible that behind the scenes, the U.S. and its allies are still pushing for this; we’ll know within a few days. The U.S. and its allies could also carry their frustrations with North Korea and China into the bargaining over the text of the U.N. Panel of Experts’ next report, which is due to be released in a month or so, and which is sure to contain at least one (literally) explosive revelation.

To back up its negotiating position with a threat of consequences, the Treasury Department could do another round of designations of North Korean targets, or (better yet) Chinese targets that are helpingNorth Korea break sanctions. The latter option is (a) what’s needed, (b) what Congresswants, and (c) what Rex Tillerson promised in his confirmation hearing.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado on Sunday issued a statement on Pyongyang’s latest missile test, urging the Trump administration “to immediately pursue a series of tough measures, to include additional sanctions designations and show-of-force military exercises with our allies in the region, to send a message to Kim Jong-un that we remain committed to deterring the North Korean threat.”

Gardner, the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, authored the North Korea Sanctions Policy and Enhancement Act enacted last year through which Washington imposed landmark unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang.

He said that the latest missile test is an example of why “U.S. policy toward North Korea should never be ‘strategic patience,’ as it was during the Obama administration.”

On Friday, Gardner sent a letter to Trump to urge his administration to take a “determined and resolute U.S. policy toward North Korea.”

In the letter, Gardner urged the Trump administration to fully enforce existing U.S. and multilateral sanctions regarding North Korea and impose additional sanctions as necessary, highlight the regime’s illicit nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, human rights abuses and malicious cyber activities.

He also urged Trump to “employ all diplomatic tools to pressure” Beijing to fully enforce its North Korea sanctions commitments and encouraged secondary sanctions on any China-based entities that are found to be in violation of U.S. and UN measures.

Gardner called upon Trump to enhance Washington’s “defense and deterrence posture in East Asia,” especially urging the placement of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, system in South Korea.

“We must not allow China’s unprecedented pressure campaign against the ROK (Republic of Korea) to cancel the Thaad deployment succeed,” he wrote. [Joongang Ilbo]

Recent events give us a strong basis for optimism in this regard. On February 3, following an Iranian missile test, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated 13 individuals and 12 entities. Of these, three of the individuals had Chinese names or nationalities, and one of the entities was Chinese. This drew the usual howls of protest from the Forbidden City, which is firmly opposed to unilateral sanctions, exceptwhenit isn’t. The designations of Chinese entities working with Iran could mean that China’s days of immunity to U.S. sanctions are over.

Finally, the missile test could influence the new administration’s review of its North Korea policy and help it decide how to improve on “strategic patience.” Michael Flynn’s resignation last night could impact the contours of the new policy, depending on who succeeds him. Whatever Flynn’s other faults — and this is a blog about North Korea, so I’ll leave that discussion to others — he said nothing about North Korea that I disagreed with. Critical to that policy review will be the question of whether the U.S. will be willing to take diplomatic, overt, covert, or clandestine action to subvert Kim Jong-un’s political control inside North Korea itself. Such a strategy, in tandem with strong sanctions enforcement, will probably be a necessary element in convincing the generals in Pyongyang that they can only survive by coming to an accord with the U.S. and South Korea.

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Updates: Have you heard that thing where they say “take him seriously, but not literally?”

I guess “on” is better than “with,” so take from that what you will, if anything at all. Ambassador Haley sent a clearer signal:

Haley may be a novice in foreign policy, but she pretty obviously gets it. Experience is no substitute for good judgment.

It wasn’t the council condemnation that was significant and notable, but rather the print statement issued by new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley as she entered the consultations room.

Just weeks into her position, the tough-talking diplomat said Monday, “It’s time to hold North Korea accountable, not with our words, but with our actions.” Also in contrast to other recent US ambassadors, there was criticism aimed at China over its support of Pyongyang.

Haley wrote, “We call on all members of the Security Council to use every available resource to make it clear to the North Korean regime, and its enablers, that these launches are unacceptable.”

Enablers? No doubt a Trump administration shot across the bow aimed at Beijing. China went along with the council statement issued Monday night calling the launch a grave violation of its obligations under Security Council resolutions.

[….]

Haley’s veiled shot at China is not the diplomatic norm at the United Nations. Usually, harsh words among the big powers are expressed behind closed doors, though former US Ambassador Samantha Power and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin went at it during public council meetings on Syria, the anger spilling over after years of war.

President Trump said last week he had agreed that Beijing is the one China in the US relationship, not Taiwan, but the Haley comment means relations among the big permanent five countries on the Security Council are likely to be in potential roller-coaster mode for the next four years. [CNN]

Relations with China may have to get worse before they can get better.

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Some on-point congressional testimony on sanctions as part of a broader N. Korea policy

Reuters reports that, following North Korea’s weekend missile test, the Trump administration “will consider a full range of options in a response to Pyongyang’s missile test” that are “calibrated to show U.S. resolve while avoiding escalation.”

Those options will include increasing “pressure on China to rein in North Korea,” “new U.S. sanctions to tighten financial controls, an increase in U.S. naval and air assets in and around the Korean peninsula and accelerated installation of new missile defense systems in South Korea.” The U.S., South Korea, and Japan are also bringing the launch up at the U.N. Security Council, although it’s not yet clear if they will ask for a new resolution, a toothless presidential statement, or a new round of designations (which is likely the best we can get).

What we’re about to confront is the question of whether we can coexist with a nuclear North Korea — or, more precisely, whether a nuclear North Korea will coexist with us.

This is where its nuclear weapons program fits into North Korea’s designs. In Pyongyang’s thinking, the indispensable instrument for achieving the DPRK’s grand historical ambitions must be a supremely powerful military: more specifically, one possessed of a nuclear arsenal that can imperil and break the foreign enemies who protect and prop up what Pyongyang regards as the vile puppet state in the South, so that the DPRK may consummate its unconditional unification and give birth to its envisioned earthly Korean-race utopia. [Nicholas Eberstadt, Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 31, 2017]

I might add: Pyongyang will soon pose a direct nuclear threat to the United States. It launched cyberterrorist attacks against us to censor our own freedom of speech. It built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS. It sells surface-to-air missiles to terrorists. It’s cooperating with Iran on missiles. It will sell any weapon to any bidder with the asking price. It has long demonstrated its utter disregard for human life. The answer, emphatically, is “no.”

~   ~   ~

There are still plenty of items left on this list of options I posted last year, although I take some satisfaction from that fact that many of them have since been done, and we’re now waiting to see their impact. China’s latest sanctions violations on coal imports and cargo inspections are also openings for the new administration to offer strong responses.

Recent congressional hearings have also offered valuable guidance about what that policy should be. Once again, I’ll point to the testimony of former State and Treasury Department official Anthony Ruggiero, which should be required reading for anyone looking to make sanctions work. Ruggiero argues that we have to step up our investigation and enforcement efforts, target Kim Jong-un’s finances more strategically, and be willing to break some china along the way. Begging Beijing to help us is a fool’s errand (it won’t, at least not voluntarily). Our targets should instead be the Chinese banks and businesses that prop up Pyongyang, and that also need access to our financial system.

Also on the topic of sanctions, Victor Cha made this important argument:

The combination of the Treasury Department’s designation of the DPRK as a jurisdiction of “primary money laundering concern” under Section 311 of the PATRIOT ACT, the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, and the sectoral measures sanctions under UNSCRs 2270 and 2321 comprise a new level of sanctioning. There will be many who criticize sanctions as being ineffective. Sanctions are the most maligned instrument in the diplomatic toolbox. The reality is that we don’t know whether sanctions work until they do. That is, only after the North returns to the negotiating table, or falters under pressure, or gives up its weapons, the policy community will point to sanctions and say they work. Until then, folks will say sanctions don’t work.

So we need to keep the pressure on and expand the scope. Sanctioning of North Korea’s slave labor exports and third-party entities that have willful involvement in DPRK insurance fraud schemes should be considered. Secondary sanctioning (discussed below) should also be considered. We also need to work harder on full enforcement of unilateral and multilateral sanctions. Sanctions enforcement should be pursued in conjunction with our allies and regional stakeholders as well as through international mechanisms. [Victor Cha]

Ironically, those who supported the economic subsidies (Kaesong, foreign tourism) that have undermined sanctions are the loudest voices claiming that sanctions have failed, or repeating the factually and legally false claim that years of strong sanctions haven’t worked. If you want to know why sanctions haven’t worked yet, it’s because (1) they were weak, and (2) until at least a year ago, economic subsidies from South Korea and China canceled out whatever limited effects they’ve had.

Then, what strategy do sanctions serve? Our goal can’t just be to force Pyongyang to come back to talks or promise us another unverifiable freeze.

If there is any chance at all that the North would ever entertain the idea of giving up its nuclear program, it would be only because the new administration has made it very clear that the Kim regime is facing a stark choice between keeping the nuclear arsenal and regime survival. [Sue Mi Terry, testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, February 7, 2017]

As I explained here, sanctions can force Kim Jong-un to make difficult choices about allocating limited resources, catalyze corruption and indiscipline within the security forces, instigate inter-factional knife fights as resources dwindle, and convince him that he’s losing control. Anyone who wants to understand how sanctions fit into a broader policy, and what that policy should be, will not see it explained better anywhere than Terry did in her written testimony last week. She explains how sanctions further our medium- and long-term political objectives by weakening the regime’s domestic political support in tandem with information operations that pave the way for change and, ultimately, reunification without war. And as Terry explains, sanctions aren’t the only element of presenting that stark choice (she also argues for subversive information operations, strong alliances, and diplomacy).

Terry is probably right when she argues that while we can’t close off Pyongyang’s option to resolve the crisis diplomatically, “[i]n the final analysis, there is only one way that the threat from North Korean will truly come to an end: the current regime itself must come to an end.”

Another challenge for the United States is how to induce an internal debate among North Korean elites about the costs of a nuclear North Korea. Sanctions alone are likely to convince North Korean elites that their only options are to unite in support of Kim Jong Un and his nuclear policy or to risk regime failure and international retribution-that is to “hang together or hang separately.” [Scott Snyder, Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 31, 2017]

Unless, of course, we offer clemency to those who come forward and defect with valuable intelligence, or who refuse orders to fire on civilians, whether in North or South Korea.

For this reason, it is all the more important for senior officials around Kim Jong Un to know that there is an alternative pathway that can safeguard their survival. Given the absence of overt internal dissent within North Korea today, this strategy may also fail. But media reports of accounts by Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean official who recently defected, suggest that dissenting opinions and discontent do exist among high-level North Korean elites. The United States and its allies should seek to communicate a clear message and guarantee to those around Kim Jong-un that there is a viable alternative path forward for North Korea if it abandons nuclear weapons and conforms to international norms, including on human rights.

Above all, however, any strategy that includes (or even tolerates) sanctioning and subsidizing the same target at the same time will fail under the weight of its own incoherence. Twenty years of engagement have made zero measurable progress toward the reform and peace that its backers promised us. On the contrary, those subsidies helped Pyongyang to nuke up, break sanctions, seal its borders, and consolidate a third generation of tyranny. No coherent policy has room for both sanctions and subsidies. It must be one or the other.

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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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Rex Tillerson on North Korea

I’ve been letting confirmation hearings play in the background at the office this week, and I was able to catch enough of Rex Tillerson’s hearing to listen up at key moments. You can watch the whole thing here if you have time; it’s likely that North Korea also came up during other moments that I didn’t catch. Of course, I was keen to hear Tillerson’s views about North Korea. I was also keen to hear (indirectly) the views of the transition team members who had prepared him for his hearing. In his written testimony, Tillerson strongly criticized China for being unhelpful on North Korea.

And we must hold those who are not our friends accountable to the agreements they make. Our failure to do this over recent decades has diminished our standing and encouraged bad actors around the world to break their word. We cannot afford to ignore violations of international accords, as we have done with Iran. We cannot continue to accept empty promises like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform, only to shy away from enforcement. Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behavior. And it must end. [….]

We should also acknowledge the realities about China. China’s island building in the South China Sea is an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms. China’s economic and trade practices have not always followed its commitments to global agreements. It steals our intellectual property, and is aggressive and expansionist in the digital realm. It has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb North Korea. China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests. We have to deal with what we see, not with what we hope.

But we need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well. The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined. China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership. [Written Testimony]

Tillerson made similar verbal statements early on in the hearing.

More press reports on those comments here and here.

Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado got his turn to ask questions at 2:31:50 (sorry, no embed link). Gardner used his time efficiently, methodically pinning Tillerson down on a series of policy points: full enforcement of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, exerting more pressure on China and North Korea, the use of secondary sanctions against China, and working closely with Japan and South Korea. Gardner returned at 6:21 to raise the issue of human rights and yesterday’s designation of Kim Yo-jong, announced just minutes before, though Tillerson himself didn’t expand on that. (I’ll discuss those designations in a future post, hopefully tonight.)

Tillerson’s hearing added more pixels to our image of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy, and the policy that is taking form is a conventionally conservative one. Compare Tillerson’s comments with those of Michael Flynn during a recent visit to Seoul, where Flynn also re-committed to the alliance and to stepping up the enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang. Tillerson is clearly smart and well-schooled in foreign affairs. When appropriate, he was willing to disagree with some of the bombastic statements of the President-Elect as a candidate. He seemed steady, independent, and well-qualified. We could do much worse. Time will tell whether he’ll be confirmed and how he performs.

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Two must-reads, via David Straub & Evans Revere

I sacrificed my blogging time for a greater cause today, but instead will direct you to the sober and terrifying analyses of two of my favorite left-of-center North Korea watchers, David Straub and Evans Revere. Both will give you a good idea of exactly where Kim Jong-un thinks his nuclear program is leading, and it doesn’t involve bargaining it away. Similar to this and this in some regards, in case you missed those posts.

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WaPo: Trump’s Asia team leans toward sanctioning N. Korea’s Chinese enablers

For now, this is mostly leaks and whispers in a Josh Rogin column, but it’s encouraging.

Behind the scenes, however, the Trump transition is preparing its own pivot to Asia. As the team that will implement that policy takes shape, what’s emerging is an approach that harkens back to past Republican administrations — but also seeks to actualize the Obama administration’s ambition of enhancing the U.S. presence in the region. Transition officials say the Trump administration will take a hawkish view of China, focus on bolstering regional alliances, have a renewed interest in Taiwan, be skeptical of engagement with North Korea and bolster the U.S. Navy’s fleet presence in the Pacific. [….]

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are advancing quickly, and Trump has pledged to stop them. His team is considering secondary sanctions that would apply to companies that aid Kim Jong Un’s regime, which would create another point of tension with China. The details of several of the policies are not yet fleshed out. [Josh Rogin, WaPo]

Victor Cha, who cited this humble blog in congressional testimony recently to support the point that our North Korea sanctions are far weaker than frequently described, is among those under consideration for a senior post in the team. An op-ed Cha co-wrote with Robert Gallucci in the New York Times (a key passage of which is archived here, if you’re not a subscriber) also calls for increasing secondary financial sanctions against North Korea and emphasizing its crimes against humanity by citing the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report. Obviously, I won’t argue with the soundness of those ideas, and I’d like to see both of them become parts of our North Korea policy.

Of course, I’ve read rumors for years that various administrations have been considering those strategies; I’ve yet to see any of them actually pursue them. And even today, I seldom disagree with what Chris Hill* writes in his op-eds, but the policy he executed was so disastrous that the distrust he created still lingers — between the U.S. and Japan, between Congress and the State Department, and between the State Department and the Treasury Department. You can even lay some of the blame for the failure of U.N. sanctions on Hill. (* Update: I have no information that Hill is under consideration for any policy post, I’m only using him as an example.)

Admittedly, policy is easier to blog about in the abstract than it is to execute in a complex world of conflicting and shifting interests. And arguably, the decision to accept the cost of some broken china to disarm North Korea is the easy one. The hard questions are about how we would use the pressure sanctions are meant to create. What strategy are sanctions meant to serve? How precisely can we target sanctions to serve that strategy and mitigate harm to the North Korean people? Are we willing to keep pursuing sanctions if the regime starts to break apart, or if South Korea veers left? When will our leverage be sufficient to restart talks, and how will we know when that time comes? Exactly what sanctions relief would we be willing to grant for what concessions? Would we grant limited sanctions relief before achieving all of our objectives and without throwing away our leverage, and how can we do that? I’ve had some thoughts on those questions.

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As Trump picks his cabinet, Congress flexes its foreign policy muscle

As we continue to watch Trump’s trial balloons float by on the selection of his national security cabinet, we still don’t know much about the foreign policy Donald Trump would have as President. On the other hand, most of Congress’s key players on foreign policy will still be around next year, and some of them have already begun to assert themselves. Committee chairs are (on one hand) pushing Trump to adopt more conventional foreign policy views, while (on the other) threatening to use their power to undermine any major policy shifts, specifically toward the Kremlin.

Some of the most powerful foreign-policy makers in the U.S. government are outside of President-elect Donald Trump’s control and are already signaling an early end to the honeymoon period over their fellow Republican’s security and diplomatic stances. [Foreign Policy, Molly O’Toole]

Ed Royce, the California Republican who conceived the North Korea sanctions bill that became law in February, and who stayed mostly quiet on Trump’s candidacy this year, will be back as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year. Hopefully, so will his Senate co-champion, Cory Gardner, at the helm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee. (Gardner’s rising star status was cemented this week by his selection to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee.) After some of Trump’s statements last year cast doubt on the alliance, both Royce and Gardner visited South Korea to reassure its leaders. Paul Ryan has also been supportive of the alliance.

Bob Corker, the current Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remains in the running for Secretary of State. Whether Corker is nominated or stays on as Chairman, he’d be a moderating influence. If Corker does leave the Senate, next in line, in terms of seniority, would be Idaho Senator James Risch, who called voting for Trump “distasteful,” but said he’d do it anyway. If congressional Republicans really want to put their stamp on foreign policy, however, they’ll pick the talented and highly intelligent Marco Rubio, who is fresh off a convincing reelection win. 

Also back at the Armed Services Committee is the newly reelected John McCain, who has joined with his close friend, Lindsey Graham, in making clear that any pivot to Moscow will face significant resistance in Congress.

“[Trump] wants to reset with Russia. Maybe he can do it, but here’s my view about Russia: They’re a bad actor in the world, they need to be reined in,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday, adding that it would be up to Congress to let Russia “know the rules of the road pretty early,” even under a friendlier Trump administration.

“I think [Russia] should pay a price heavier than they’re paying now for what they’re doing in Syria and in eastern Europe,” Graham added. “I will consult with my colleagues what there is appetite for.”

Graham isn’t the only Trump critic who came out swinging on Tuesday on Russian involvement in global affairs. His close friend and colleague Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that “the price of another ‘reset’ [with Russia] would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people. That is an unacceptable price for a great nation.” [Washington Post, Karoun Demirjian]

What can Congress do, aside from mere words? The Post’s report says that lawmakers are preparing “a battery of legislative measures to hold the line against Russia, regardless of what the president-elect tries to do.” Such as? First, words do matter, and Graham is threatening to hold “a series of hearings about Russia’s misadventures throughout the world” and cyberattacks. Although Republicans balked at holding pre-election hearings into Russia’s meddling in the election, Republicans haven’t dropped the issue, either.

“We cannot sit on the sidelines as a party and let allegations against a foreign government interfering in our election process go unanswered because it may have been beneficial to our goals for the moment,” Graham said Tuesday. 

In the House, Royce also said he would be interested in investigating Russia’s connection to the hacking incidents. “I would hope that all federal agencies are investigating,” Royce said. “If we can get evidence, it’s very worthwhile to pursue any information we have.” [WaPo]

Second, Congress can do what it did to force a reluctant President Obama’s hand on North Korea: impose mandatory sanctions. This week, the House passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016, which could force the next administration to sanction Assad’s Russian backers, among others. If the name of the bill sounds familiar, that’s because “Caesar” is the code name for the subject of a chilling Ted talk by his former CIA handler, a man who would later become a House staffer and independent candidate: Evan McMullin. Ordinarily, the calendar would make it difficult for the Ceasar Act to pass this Congress, but even Corker says “there’s going to be much more opportunity for bipartisan passage” of bills pertaining to Russia, and that lawmakers “plan to be aggressive” before the year ends. If the bill doesn’t pass this year, expect to see the same text introduced again in January.

“Regardless of perspectives on Syria, there’s some unanimity of opinion in sending a message on this kind of conduct,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said prior to the vote. [WaPo]

Ditto North Korea, if you’ve been watching the recent oversight hearings in the House and Senate.

Finally, Graham is promising “a package that would help our Eastern European allies better deal with the threats they face from Russia” that includes broad defense aid “to make it harder for Russia to advance beyond where they are today.” If Trump’s rhetoric on cost-sharing helps defray the cost, that aid package may be more palatable in Congress. Ed Royce thinks Trump’s public skepticism about NATO was nothing more than a “very successful negotiating tactic” to persuade NATO allies “to pay their share of the burden” in funding the alliance. Corker claims to have seen an “evolution” in Trump’s views on Russia and NATO.

If Trump can persuade Japan and South Korea to contribute more funds without harming the integrity of the alliance, I’d say all ends well, except that I have no confidence that all ends well if the left wins South Korea’s next presidential election. Another outbreak of anti-Americanism could erode congressional support for the alliance below a critical level, especially if South Korean politicians are seen as feeding or playing into that. 

Historically, the President has enjoyed great deference in the conduct of foreign policy. This Congress is already hinting that it means to push the envelope in that historic power struggle. If Trump prefers to prioritize other matters, we may see an early compromise, especially if Trump appoints a more conventional and moderate cabinet. If not, we may see a period of intra-partisan conflict and gridlock between the executive and legislative branches. If Congress prevails, the result could be a historic expansion of Congress’s power over the conduct of foreign affairs.

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FP: White House “heatedly debating” whether to enforce North Korea sanctions law

Last week, Samantha Power was in Seoul, reassuring our increasingly panicky South Korean allies that the U.S. will use “all the tools in our tool kit” to deny His Porcine Majesty hard currency and WMD materiel, and pressure him to disarm. Meanwhile, a must-read article in Foreign Policy reveals that late in the eleventh hour of his presidency, Barack Obama still hasn’t decided to use “all” the tools after all, particularly the one Congress wants him to use — secondary sanctions against Chinese banks.

Instead, FP reports, senior administration officials are “heatedly debating whether to trigger harsh sanctions against North Korea that would target Chinese companies doing business with the hermit regime, in a crackdown like the one that crippled Iran’s economy.”

Officials told FP that the approach would be similar to the sweeping secondary sanctions that were slapped on global banks handling transactions with Iran. Those sanctions are widely credited with bringing Iran’s economy to its knees in 2013 and forcing Tehran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. [Foreign Policy, Dan De Luce]

The prime targets of the new strategy under discussion? Exactly the right ones — Chinese trading companies and banks. Open sources alone provide for no shortage of targets. We already know about the recently indicted Dandong Hongxiang. There’s also the Bureau 39-linked 88 Queensway Group; gold dealer Unaforte, which may be exporting to the U.S. in violation of Executive Order 13570; the Wanxiang Group, which may be China’s largest importer of North Korean minerals; banks like the Bank of China, which willfully helped North Korea launder money through the U.S. financial system; and other Chinese banks that turn a blind eye to their know-your-customer obligations on behalf of North Korean customers, as well as Chinese customers that help them circumvent U.N. sanctions and U.S. law.

But a decision to go after Chinese banks and trading companies that deal with Pyongyang could rupture Washington’s relations with Beijing, which bristles at any unilateral sanctions imposed on its companies or drastic action that could cause instability in neighboring North Korea. [FP]

The U.S. has told the Japanese and South Korean governments that it is focused on cutting off North Korea’s sources of hard currency, including labor exports. But with even people in Beijing speaking openly of limited military strikes and South Koreans worried about falling under the shadow of nuclear blackmail, the sense of urgency in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington has never been greater. Trade sanctions alone will probably take much longer to work than financial sanctions, and are more likely to hurt the wrong people, thus undermining political support for stricter enforcement. Now, having let matters drift for eight years and lost the confidence of the entire Congress, the administration belatedly recognizes that things have deteriorated quickly, and that it needs a quicker strategy. 

“In the past two or so years, there’s a general appreciation that the situation has become worse and that we, the United States and the responsible nations of the world, need to up our game,” said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. As a result, the administration is “looking at a more active and more aggressive use of the authorities” for sanctions, the official told FP. [….]

The political calendar in the United States also is shaping the internal discussions, with some officials arguing that President Barack Obama would be better placed to order the move in his final months in office, rather than leaving it to a new administration to enter into a heated dispute with China. [FP]

Since North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, Congress has put the administration under intense pressure to implement the NKSPEA more aggressively. South Korea and Japan are also pushing for the more aggressive strategy.

U.N. resolutions and new legislation adopted by Congress in February give the administration far-reaching legal authorities to block assets, file criminal charges, and cancel visas for individuals or organizations violating sanctions rules on North Korea. But so far, the administration has yet to wield those authorities in a decisive manner, taking action in a relatively small number of cases while it seeks to persuade China to take a more assertive role. [FP]

Which you already know, because you read this blog. FP also picks up on the Senate Asia Subcommittee’s aggressive questioning of the administration in its most recent oversight hearing.

Since approving new sanctions legislation in February, U.S. lawmakers from both parties have complained that relatively few companies or individuals have been blacklisted and charged.

“You have sanctioned no Chinese banks at the end of the day, and they are probably the major financial institutions for North Korea,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said at a hearing last week with top State Department officials.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking at the same hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, accused the administration of timidity when it comes to sanctions that could antagonize the Chinese government.

“We know who these companies are. We haven’t moved fast enough on it. There’s no reason not to have moved faster. There’s plenty of targets of opportunity and plenty of information out there about them,” Rubio said. [FP]

See this link for similar bipartisan pressure coming from the House side of the Mall. So what has prevented the administration from responding to this pressure from our allies and Congress? Deference to China. 

“It could become the defining issue in the U.S.-China relationship. It could push Beijing and Washington into a very unhappy place,” said Evan Medeiros, who served as Obama’s top advisor on Asia affairs at the White House National Security Council until last year.

Pursuing Iran-like sanctions against North Korea would mean “hardcore secondary sanctions in ways that the Chinese aren’t going to like,” he said.

“But the U.S. is simply going to have to be willing to countenance friction in the U.S.-Chinese relationship that the U.S. hasn’t been willing to accept to date, because the North Korean threat is becoming too serious,” said Medeiros, now at the Eurasia Group since leaving the White House. [FP]

That is to say, so far, the White House has given more weight to the views of China — which has willfully violated U.N. sanctions for years — than to staunch U.S. allies abroad, or a united Congress.

Obama has tended to avoid confrontation with China on most issues, including over the South China Sea and economic disputes. The administration, however, did take a forceful stance against Beijing-backed cyberhacking in the United States.

“They have placed a premium on trying to manage the relationship with China in a constructive way and to contain areas of friction or competition,” said a congressional staffer. [FP]

Right. Because it would be terrible if relations broke down so badly that China started, say, unilaterally seizing huge tracts of strategic waters, rounding up and jailing dissidents, or amping up its anti-American propaganda.

De Luce reports that the administration still hasn’t made its mind up, and “may in the end opt to take a more incremental approach, avoiding a major clash with China.” Which would be typical. In fact, I wouldn’t be astonished if the administration had planted this story to pressure China to be more flexible in its negotiations over a new U.N. Security Council resolution, agreement on which is taking even longer than usual. Having said that, what a rare joy it is to read journalism like De Luce’s, which shows that the reporter took the trouble to research and understand the subject matter before writing about it.

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Sanctions talk with Steph Haggard; House hearings on N. Korea nukes & sanctions

In lieu of a full-length screed today, I’ll direct you to —

  • a more refined list of my sanctions and policy recommendations in this post, by Stephan Haggard.
  • for the sanctions geeks, the latest Treasury/FINCEN advisory, in which North Korea seizes the top spot from Iran as a money laundering risk. If nothing else, it’s a useful reminder that North Korean banks’ cutoff from the financial system — the single most important sanction yet imposed on North Korea — still hasn’t become final and taken effect. It will take some time for us to see and assess the effects of that. And if that’s not geeky enough for you, you may be interested in FINCEN’s new rules on beneficial ownership disclosure, which could impact North Korea indirectly.
  • video of today’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia Subcommittee, featuring Victor Cha, Bruce Klingner, Sue Mi Terry, and David Albright. The big takeaway was that Chairman Salmon will propose legislation to cut North Korea off from “financial messaging services,” which either means SWIFT or whatever less responsible actors are filling that void for North Korea these days.

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Please, Kurt Campbell, save Korea (and us) from the Trumpocalypse

For conservative North Korea watchers who are rightly depressed about the intellectual and moral death of the Republican Party, let me palliate your depression with a few observations. First, parties come and go. What matters is that democracy endures. Any casual observer of South Korean politics knows that democracies can outlive the dissolution of parties just fine. 

Second, what matters to Korea policy is coalitions, not parties. On the Hill, there isn’t much of a partisan divide on North Korea policy at all these days. Democrats and Republicans are in equally hawkish moods. Just look at how they voted. Republicans have never been less united, but on North Korea policy, Congress has never been more united behind stronger pressure to force Pyongyang to disarm or perish. 

Third, Victor Cha’s sober and plausible analysis of Hillary Clinton’s North Korea policy is nothing to be particularly depressed about. Finally, take heart from the words of a man who is likely to play an important role President Clinton’s North Korea policy.

In the opening speech of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’s 2016 Plenum, Campbell – who also works closely with presidential candidate Hilary Clinton – refuted the notion that North Korea is one of the most sanctioned countries in the world.

“I would argue that in fact there are many countries that are more heavily sanctioned than North Korea. There are a number of steps we could take that would send a much clearer message about (their) activities to gain hard currency.”

The current chairman and CEO of the Asia Group added that implementing further sanctions would also likely involve going after institutions that conduct at least some of their operations in China.

Campbell pointed to the difficulties that many negotiators had experienced when dealing with North Korea over the last 20 years, but also said the door should never be closed on negotiating.

“I would be of the view of that the U.S, South Korea, Japan and Russia should leave the door open for talks. It’s in our best interests to solve these issues diplomatically.” [NK News]

I don’t disagree with any of that. Not even the last part.

Along with sanctions, the international community should step up efforts in other areas to pressure Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear ambitions, such as supporting its refugees, a former senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

During his remarks at a foreign policy forum in Seoul, Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for Asia, also expressed his support for a five-party dialogue format involving South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia to discuss Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

“We have to step up our efforts in other areas. What we have done in the U.S. to support North Korean refugees could be substantially increased. I think our ability to send more information into North Korea could be dialed up substantially,” he said during a dinner session of the Asan Plenum 2016, an annual forum hosted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“I think more work can be done on preparing for uncertainty for friends surrounding North Korea, and I would be much clearer with Chinese interlocutors about what our expectations with respect to North Korea are going forward,” he added. [Yonhap]

Even Wendy Sherman, of Agreed Framework infamy, is now trying to sound hawkish, although I suspect that in Sherman’s case, this is election-year posturing. At a recent conference, Sherman called for the U.S. and its allies to plan for regime collapse in North Korea, something that Sherman would not have said publicly a few years ago, out of deference to the delicate sensitivities of His Porcine Majesty, and the others who share his Safe Space in Pyongyang. NK News’s Jiwon Song (previous link) misreads Sherman’s call as a call for a plan to cause the collapse of North Korea’s regime. Far be it for me to object to this notion, but Sherman is merely saying that we should plan for what may now be inevitable. Then, Song “balances” this imaginative interpretation by finding a South Korean expert who is even farther left than Sherman. This sort of “balance” belongs in the Hankyoreh or in an opinion piece, not in a news article.

I predict the greater problem will come when Pyongyang tempts us to lift sanctions for a quick deal. For all the hope one draws from Campbell’s comments, I fully expect the next administration, like this one, to continue to be hobbled by internal debates among those who want to apply pressure and let it work, and those who want to cut a deal as quickly as … as The New York Times editors would have them cut one. Here we are, just three months after the same editors endorsed H.R. 757, and now they’re saying this:

While sanctions are important and China, more than any other country, has the power to make North Korea feel their effects, sanctions alone are not enough to mitigate the threat. Backing an inexperienced and reckless leader like Mr. Kim into a corner is risky and might lead to even more dangerous responses, like aiming a weapon at South Korea or Japan, with potentially catastrophic results.

At some point, the United States, along with China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, will have to find a way to revive negotiations aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear program. The Obama administration earlier this year had secret contacts with the North that foundered over a disagreement on whether to focus on denuclearization (America’s priority) or on replacing the current Korean War armistice with a formal peace treaty (North Korea’s priority). But the idea of talking with the North is politically unpopular in America, and this is an election year. [Editorial, New York Times]

The Times then quotes Bob Carlin, who has advocated do-nothing freeze deals at every turn, and who has an awful track record for reading peace overtures that aren’t there into cryptic North Korean statements.

Note well, NYT: Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) in 2010. It took three years, and another sanctions law to close the CISADA’s loopholes, until your newspaper reported that sanctions had created “a hard-currency shortage that is bringing the country’s economy to its knees.” It took two more years until (for better or for worse) John Kerry inked his grand bargain. The editors of the Times show no sign of having thought through what sanctions are supposed to achieve, or how they fit into a greater strategy. Nor, for that matter, have they bothered to read the conditions for lifting those sanctions at sections 401 and 402 of Public Law 114-122.

We are very far from backing Kim Jong-un into a corner. It takes more than three months to go from “sanctions never work” to “OMG sanctions are working WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” Sanctions are an essential part of a policy that’s designed to weaken the cohesion, control, and survivability of the North Korean regime, in a way that presents Pyongyang with a clear choice: disarm and reform, or perish. We’ll know that the conditions are right for a diplomatic solution when Pyongyang is ready to accept fundamental transparency in its dealings with the world. It will take more than inserting a few U.N. inspectors at Yongbyon for us to know that Pyongyang has made that decision. It will mean free and nationwide access by food aid monitors. It will mean Red Cross workers in North Korea’s prison camps. It will mean the de-escalation of conventional forces, including artillery and rockets, along the DMZ. It will take more than a few months to exert the pressure needed to achieve that.

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On North Korea policy, the opinion pages suddenly read like posts from this blog

Since January’s nuclear test, I have noted with satisfaction the signs that Washington’s consensus on North Korea policy has taken a decisive turn toward views I’ve advocated at this site for years. This week, OFK readers have been sending me a great deal of better-placed commentary about North Korea, asking me, “Did you write this?” I swear I didn’t write, for example, this Washington Post editorial, published yesterday:

What is needed is a return to the only non-military strategy that brought results: sanctions that strike at the regime’s inner circle. Mr. Kim and his cronies are still managing to import luxury goods from China, in spite of a U.N. ban; they still use Chinese banks to do business with the rest of the world. Those links could be curtailed if North Korea, like Iran before it, were designated as a money launderer and U.S. sanctions were slapped on Chinese banks and other businesses that supply weapons and luxury goods.

Pending U.S. sanctions legislation, already passed by the House and scheduled for a Senate floor vote this week, would mandate these steps, while providing the administration with some flexibility. It should pass, and Mr. Obama should sign it. [….]

Both China and North Korea must see that they will pay a mounting price for what, to the United States, should be Mr. Kim’s intolerable steps toward a nuclear arsenal. “Strategic patience” is no longer a viable option. [Washington Post Editorial]

Or this, from a Wall Street Journal columnist:

Groundhog Day was last week, but North Korea’s ballistic-missile test on Sunday may have you feeling you’ve seen this one before. First the weeks of rumors, then the launch, next the emergency session at the United Nations—and then nothing. The pattern will continue until the U.S. stops running its North Korea policy through Beijing. [….]

Though President Obama calls North Korea “the most sanctioned” nation on Earth, he’s wrong. The U.S. lists Iran and Burma as countries of primary money-laundering concern, a designation it doesn’t apply to Pyongyang despite its counterfeit-currency racket. The U.S. has applied harsher human-rights sanctions against Congo and Zimbabwe, never mind the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Pyongyang’s labor camps.

Treasury Department officials have argued for stronger measures, on the model of the highly effective sanctions the U.S. imposed on Macau’s Banco Delta Asia in 2005 that forced banks to suspend business with Pyongyang. But National Security Adviser Susan Rice has opposed the move for fear of upsetting U.S. relations with Beijing.

The House last month overwhelmingly passed the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, mandating action against entities and individuals tied to illicit weapons programs, luxury-goods imports, counterfeiting and drug trafficking. The White House has hinted that it doesn’t oppose the bill, and the President might sign it if it passes the Senate. But the bill’s effectiveness depends on the Administration’s willingness to squeeze North Korean financing by punishing the Chinese banks through which the Kim regime moves its money. [….]

China isn’t likely to squeeze its client unless it sees the U.S. and its allies doing more to isolate the North on their own. Such a policy would seek to end the regime through sweeping financial sanctions that prevent the Kim family from financing the tools of their tyranny, from weapons to whiskeys, and that impose stiff penalties on their enablers abroad. The strategy of begging China has been a failure. [WSJ, Review & Outlook]

Or this, from the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

This week the U.S. Senate will join the U.S. House of Representatives in passing legislation that sends a strong bipartisan message: North Korea is a serious threat to U.S. national security and our current approach is a failure.

The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, which we expect to become law in the coming weeks, will provide the executive branch with a more robust set of policy tools to confront the threat posed by the rogue regime in Pyongyang. And while there is no “silver bullet” solution to the North Korea policy challenge, the United States must undertake a more proactive approach toward North Korea to address its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and human rights abuses against its own people.

The Senate bill represents the best of our bipartisan foreign policy tradition and builds upon legislation passed in the House of Representatives to expand and tighten enforcement of sanctions for North Korea’s destructive activities.

he bill requires the Obama administration to investigate sanctionable conduct. This means working to expose those involved in supporting North Korea’s human rights abuses, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and activities undermining cybersecurity — marking the first statutory framework for sanctions in response to the growing North Korean cyberthreat.

Importantly, it also targets for investigation those who back these activities through other means, such as providing the regime with industrial inputs such as coal, or luxury goods that serve as a valuable source of hard currency to fund North Korea’s nefarious activities. The President then is mandated to sanction any person found to have materially contributed to, engaged in or helped to facilitate these actions. [….]

Some North Korea watchers assert that Beijing doesn’t have the leverage that many U.S. officials contend it has over Pyongyang’s behavior. But that’s simply not true. [Sen. Bob Corker, CNN.com]

I welcome all of this unreservedly, and if this means I’ve directly or indirectly influenced these views, then that’s all I’ve ever wanted from this jihad of mine. It is an unfamiliar feeling to an insurgent to be overtaken by the mainstream. Still, it would be an error for any American to take credit for it. This tipping point is really the work of the most effective lobbyist in this town, a morbidly obese high school dropout and NBA fan who has never been to Washington and barely speaks English.

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In The Weekly Standard: Ed Royce’s Bipartisan Coup Against a Bipartisan Failure

If President Obama ends up signing a North Korea sanctions bill in the next 30 days — and at this point, I don’t know what interest he has in vetoing one — it will effect the biggest change in our North Korea policy since the 1994 Agreed Framework. That, in turn, will have been due to years of principled dissent and patient, bi-partisan coalition building by Ed Royce, the California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

A certain, too-prevalent type of Republican who sees all Democrats as enemies could learn a few things about winning policy arguments from a man who defied his own party for conservative principle, and yet had the strategic sense to see Democrats, including some very liberal ones, as allies to be won over.

Read the rest of the story here.

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Dems & Republicans join forces to support North Korea sanctions legislation

When it comes to North Korea policy, Washington’s most influential lobbyist has never been to Washington. He’s in his early 30s, never finished high school, chain smokes, likes to ski, loves the NBA and bondage porn, favors dark suits and mushroom haircuts, has an explosive temper and a small nuclear arsenal, and weighs as much as a village full of his malnourished subjects.

Tuesday’s nuke test may have come just in time for Congress to act before dispersing for a long election year. Now, a sanctions bill that had stalled for months is moving swiftly to the House floor, and Roll Call and Foreign Policy are quoting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) as saying that her party will support the legislation, “virtually guaranteeing” its passage “as early as next week.”

royce engek

[The leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: Chairman Ed Royce (R, CA) and Ranking Member Elliot Engel (D, NY)]

Foreign Policy says the bill will be “based on” the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act (which, in full disclosure, I helped write):

An aide for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Foreign Policy the legislation would be based on the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, a bill that passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year. The measure authorizes sanctions against banks facilitating the country’s nuclear program and the freezing of U.S. assets linked to North Korean “proliferation, smuggling, money laundering, and human rights abuses.” [Foreign Policy]

I won’t deny that the words “based on” concern me just a little, but I expect relatively few changes to the House bill — there just isn’t time for extensive ones. Whatever the changes, I just hope they aren’t harmful to the key provisions.*

The House bill is “ready to go” and could receive a vote the week of Jan. 11, Pelosi said. Because the bill has strong bipartisan support, she said it may be voted under an expedited procedure known as suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage. Speaker Paul D. Ryan confirmed the House will vote on North Korea sanctions, but deferred details on the schedule to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. [Roll Call]

In the Senate, where arcane rules make it difficult to move a bill without unanimous consent, things are less settled. There are two bills pending — Senator Cory Gardner’s (R, CO) strong S. 2144, and Senator Menendez’s substantively weaker S. 1747, which is largely redundant with an Executive Order President Obama signed a year ago, after the Sony cyberterrorist attack, but has hardly used. Unlike S. 2144, S. 1747 lacks mandatory sanctions, and leaves all the discretion to the President. 

sfrc

[Senators Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio, James Risch, and Chairman Bob Corker. Via]

Unfortunately, the President’s failure to respond to the Sony cyberattack last year means that he doesn’t need more discretion, he needs less of it. Kim Jong-un may not know much about Congress, but he obviously has this President figured out.

While the final form of a Senate bill remains uncertain, the Senate’s mood is on open display. Marco Rubio (R, FL), a co-sponsor of S. 2144, is calling for North Korea to be put back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.** But of course, only a few lonely cranks — and three federal District Court judges, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and pretty much everyone of consequence in Congress — believe the evidence would support that.

“We have to do everything we can to ensure that they have less money to spend on these sorts of programs. So that’s why a state sponsor of terror, they should be returned to that list,” Rubio said in an interview with Fox Business Network. “They were once on that list. They were removed from that list as a concession. They need to be put back on,” he said. Rubio also called for measures to “go after the assets” overseas of the North’s leadership. [Yonhap]

Senator James Risch (R-ID), also a co-sponsor of S. 2144, told CNN, “I think that what is going to happen is, there are going to be some banking sanctions that they can turn the screw a little tighter on with some of the banks that they are doing business with in Asia. I have no doubt that that’s going to be looked at.” 

As Yonhap accurately divines, what Risch is calling for is a return to the strategy used against Banco Delta Asia in 2005, which “almost cut off the North from the international financial system.”

The blacklisting of Banco Delta Asia not only froze North Korean money in the bank but also scared away other financial institutions from dealing with Pyongyang for fear they would also be blacklisted. The measure is considered the most effective U.S. sanction yet on the North. [Yonhap]

Senator Kelly Ayotte, a moderate Republican from New Hampshire, called on the administration to “impose the toughest and broadest possible sanctions against North Korea and those who aid the regime’s illicit activities,” and also called the President’s North Korea policy a failure.

Senate Democrats are piling on, too.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called on Congress to pass new sanctions legislation in the wake of the test. Menendez introduced legislation last year with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pushing the administration for tougher sanctions against North Korea and its supporters.

Cardin and Menendez both said, separately, that the Security Council should impose its own penalties on North Korea. “Moreover, given North Korea’s actions, the United States and our allies must also take additional steps to combine effective sanctions with appropriate countermeasures,” Cardin added. [The Hill]

On Wednesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including the top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Intelligence Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Adam Schiff of California, pushed for punitive sanctions.

“I intend to work with my colleagues in the Senate on legislation to impose additional sanctions on North Korea and would also urge additional sanctions by the United Nations Security Council,” said Cardin in a statement. [Foreign Policy]

Senate staffers are probably debating which version of the bill they’ll ultimately pass out of the Foreign Relations Committee. Crucially, we still don’t know which version Chairman Bob Corker (R, TN) will support. The Hill quotes Corker as promising to work with Cardin, Menendez, and Gardner to “bring further pressure to bear” on the North Korean government. He might introduce his own version, or even “simply take up the House version of the bill this time around.”

This being an election year, the presidential candidates are also criticizing the President’s policy and calling for more sanctions. That means almost all of the Republicans — even Rand Paul — but not only the Republicans.

“The United States and our partners, including the U.N. Security Council, need to immediately impose additional sanctions against North Korea,” Clinton said. [Foreign Policy]

As I so often do, I agree with what Mrs. Clinton says on foreign policy. If only I could forget that she was Secretary of State for four years. If only she hadn’t coined that awful term, “strategic patience,” which still makes the State Department people wince. The Republicans will want to hang this albatross around her neck. They’d be crazy not to. Ted Cruz is already hanging it around her husband’s neck. That’s why foreign policy would have been an important issue in this election, even if the entire world didn’t seem to be collapsing into anarchy.

It’s hard to find anyone who approves of how the President has handled North Korea today. Conservatives call him weak, and his “traditional supporters” have criticized him “for not pushing harder for direct multilateral talks with North Korea and other regional partners.” Foreign Policy reports a “rare convergence of criticism” that “the size and sophistication of North Korea’s nuclear program has increased” during his presidency. The Washington Post‘s David Nakamura accuses the administration of dropping the ball and outsourcing the problem to the Chinese.

So far, so good, but then, Nakamura’s sources criticize the President for not trying hard enough to get a deal, which isn’t quite fair. As The Wall Street Journal told us yesterday, “U.S. officials say they have repeatedly tried to engage North Korea in dialogue about its nuclear program in recent months, but Pyongyang hasn’t responded to their advances.” It sounds self-serving, but the record supports that contention. Besides which, the harder American presidents try to “engage” North Korea, the worse their results tend to be.

In this climate, all the administration can really do is shift the focus to its push for tougher sanctions at the U.N. It needs a win in New York to make up for what looks like a general rout of its North Korea (non-) policy in Washington. The administration will probably announce new bilateral sanctions under existing executive orders to preempt some of the momentum in Congress, but I doubt that will appease Congress now. The administration can forget about any new diplomatic initiatives. Its goal now is to avoid a greater crisis, and to keep North Korea from sapping its credibility on other foreign policy issues.

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* For more information on how a North Korea sanctions bill would work, why it would work, why more sanctions are needed, how it could work despite Chinese obstructionism, and how similar strategies have worked against North Korea before, here are those answers. For why I care and so should you, start here, and then move to this.

** President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

*** Yes, I changed the post title.

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Sen. Gardner calls on Congress to pass North Korea sanctions bill

Amid all of the slaughter and chaos sweeping over us, Senator Cory Gardner doesn’t want us to forget which government built a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, and that may soon be able to put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

It is time to ratchet up the pressure. That is why I’ve introduced the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. This bill would require the president to impose sanctions on people who have contributed to North Korea’s nuclear program, enabled its human rights abuses, and engaged in money laundering, counterfeiting or drug trafficking that benefits the regime.

North Korea skirts financial sanctions by setting up shell companies in countries like China. This bill would add pressure by asking the Treasury Department to designate North Korea “a country of primary money laundering concern” under the Patriot Act.

Similarly, North Korea evades U.N. embargoes on arms trafficking. This bill would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to seize any ships the regime uses for smuggling if they enter U.S. waters. It also asks the president to identify foreign ports that are not doing enough to prevent smuggling.[Sen. Cory Gardner, Wall Street Journal]

Senator Gardner’s bill, S. 2144, shares most of its content with H.R. 757, a bill introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R., Cal.) and Rep. Elliot Engel (D., N.Y.). In several ways, S. 2144 improves on its elder sibling. Hopefully, as the bills work their way through their respective committees and chambers, they will converge in a form that combines their best elements. That needs to happen soon, because we’re already near the end of the first session of this Congress. Time is finite, and unfortunately, it seems the only person who can get the whole Congress’s attention is Kim Jong-Un.

Events may soon favor Sen. Gardner’s call, because Kim Jong-Un also doesn’t want us to forget about Kim Jong-Un. The day after the Wall Street Journal published Sen. Gardner’s op-ed, 38 North published images showing that North Korea is digging a new tunnel at its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. Perhaps, then, tomorrow’s crisis might crowd into a few of the news cycles that have been preoccupied, lately, with the slaughter of the week. If that’s what it takes to get us toward a policy that recognizes the North Korea that is, rather than the North Korea we would prefer to believe in, so much the better.

Historically, North Korea’s nuclear tests have come every three or four years, so we’re about due. If what His Porcine Majesty most needs now is to whip up xenophobic hostility to distract his ruling class from their fears of him, and if he thinks he’s reached the limits of what Park Geun-Hye will tolerate, maybe a nuclear test is just what he needs in the short term. But if his survival depends on ready access to hard currency in his Chinese and Swiss bank accounts, in the long term, this might mean the end of him.

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The Great Engagement Debate: Stanton v. Delury at NCNK

On October 22nd, the National Committee for North Korea invited me and Professor John Delury of Yonsei University to a debate, in which we each offered three proposals for the next president on North Korea policy, all premised on a delusion of grandeur that Donald Trump really cares what either of us thinks.

The debate was held in a beautiful conference room on the top floor of the Hart Senate Office Building overlooking the Capitol. There was a great crowd — probably about 60 people. Stephen Noerper, the Senior Vice President of the Korea Society, moderated.

ncnk3 ncnk2 ncnk1

Naturally, the debate became a debate about the Sunshine Policy, the Sunshine Lite Policy, and other Sunshine hybrids and mutations that have dominated U.S. and South Korean policy for most of the last 20 years. And while I could hardly agree less with Professor Delury on policy matters, I also found him to be an exceedingly likable and genial person. I’m glad to have met him, and honored to have debated him. My only regret is that there wasn’t video, but the transcript is here.

Many thanks to Keith Luse and NCNK for their kind invitation, and to Daniel Wertz for arranging this, and for his careful attention to the transcripts.

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Scott Snyder: increase sanctions, including secondary sanctions, on Pyongyang

In a new paper for the Council on Foreign Relations, Snyder has called for increasing pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions, to persuade it that it must disarm or perish:

Since defecting from Six Party negotiations on denuclearization in 2008, North Korea has pursued nuclear development unchecked by international constraints. Barack Obama’s administration has demanded that Pyongyang make a strategic choice to denuclearize and tried to build a regional consensus opposing North Korea’s nuclear efforts, but it has been
unable to halt the country’s nuclear weapons development. Instead, North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile development is designed to force U.S. policymakers to make an undesirable choice: either acquiesce to the reality of a nuclear North Korea or mobilize international support for the destabilization of the North Korean regime.

To stop the North Korean nuclear threat, the United States should take three steps. First, Washington should increase pressure on Pyongyang so that the regime recognizes its existential choice between survival and nuclear status. Second, the United States should pursue five-party talks (Six Party framework members minus North Korea) to develop a viable pathway for North Korea to survive and benefit from denuclearization. Such a regionally supported consensus on a route to denuclearization would seek to induce a debate inside North Korea regarding the costs and benefits of its pursuit of nuclear status. And third, the United States should encourage China and Russia to withdraw political support for and increase pressure on North Korea until the regime commits to denuclearization. [Scott Snyder, Council on Foreign Relations]

Read the rest on your own; it’s only a few pages long (HT: Yonhap). Whatever my small quibbles with Scott Snyder’s writings on occasion, there’s no question that he’s one of the most respected Korea scholars in Washington, and any shift in Snyder’s thinking is likely to reflect or catalyze more shifting opinions within the conventional wisdom here. I find much more to agree with in this paper than Snyder’s previous take on sanctions policy.

The paper still raises some questions. The first of these is how we can “encourage” a recalcitrant China and Russia, when both countries have engaged in a pattern of willful non-enforcement. In China’s case, I recently described that pattern in great detail. I’ll present a similar case about Russia later this week. Would Snyder be willing to go as far as taking up Andrea Berger’s call for secondary sanctions? I’d say “yes,” based on this:

The Obama administration should apply increased political and economic pressure on North Korea to convince its leaders that a nuclear North Korea is a dead-end option. The United States should work with its allies to expand sanctions to target businesses and banks that refuse to cease cooperation with North Korea. At the same time, the United States and its allies should emphasize to Pyongyang that expanded sanctions will be relieved if North Korea takes meaningful, concrete steps toward denuclearization, such as resuming cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by allowing the return of international inspectors to the country. The United States should also remind North Korea that military provocations risk escalation that could lead to the country’s demise.

We know from past experience that whatever the objections of the Chinese government to secondary sanctions — and I was recently regaled over dinner with how furiously some of its representatives reacted to this paper, much to my amusement — historically, Chinese banks have been responsive to the threat of secondary sanctions. It’s reasonable to believe that Russian banks would respond to the same forms of “encouragement.”

Then, would Snyder focus our demands exclusively on the nuclear issue, excluding concerns about North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons, its cyber-warfare, its money laundering, its increasingly dangerous artillery rocket arsenal, and its crimes against humanity? It may be that our interests demand that Pyongyang commit to a more fundamental change of its world view than disarmament alone; after all, its expansion into uranium enrichment makes disarmament much harder to verify, especially without Pyongyang’s acceptance of much more transparency.

The human rights issue is of growing importance to policy debates in Europe and elsewhere. This also points to one flaw of the five-party formulation. The use of progressive diplomacy instead would allow us to enter talks with a coalition behind us, rather than by going straight to talks with governments that are disunited or (in the case of China and Russia) hostile to our interests.

Overall, however, Snyder’s paper is refreshingly realistic about Pyongyang’s intentions, and about the need for us to be more aggressive about curtailing them.

 

 

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House, Senate will both hold hearings on North Korea policy this week* (updated)

If you ask senior Obama Administration officials about the policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea today, they will bristle and recast it as something else, but this wasn’t the case in 2010, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained her policy in a visit to Seoul:

“What we’re focused on is changing North Korean behavior,” one senior U.S. official said. “We are not focused on getting back to the table.” “We recognize that diplomacy, some form of diplomacy with North Korea, is inevitable at some point,” another official said. “We’re really not there.” [Glenn Kessler, Washington Post]

That visit followed North Korea’s second nuclear test by a year, and North Korea’s attack on the ROKS Cheonan by a month. It clearly wasn’t working then, and it certainly isn’t working now. Expect “strategic patience” to come under attack in both houses of Congress this week.

Wednesday’s event, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee,** is entitled, “Assessing the North Korea Threat and U.S. Policy: Strategic Patience or Effective Deterrence.” Senator Cory Gardner, the Subcommittee Chair, will preside. If this speech and this resolution are any indication, the junior senator from Colorado will have some difficult questions for the Panel One witnesses, including Ambassador Sung Kim and Ambassador Robert King.

[Update: the hearing notice now says that the hearing has been postponed. I’ll update this post when the hearing is rescheduled.]

Panel Two witnesses will include Ambassador Mark Minton, President of the Korea Society, and Jay Lefkowitz, King’s predecessor as former Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights. I confess that King’s message discipline has made me miss Lefkowitz, who was willing to stray from the party line to prevent his portfolio from being steamrolled by the State Department bureaucracy.

The hearing follows the introduction of a sanctions bill by Senator Bob Menendez (D, NJ) and Senator Lindsay Graham (R, SC), even before we’ve heard from the Chairman and Ranking Member of the full committee, Senators Bob Corker (R, TN) and Ben Cardin (D, MD). For the Senate, it will be the first major hearing on North Korea policy since March 2013, shortly after North Korea’s third nuclear test.

On Tuesday afternoon,* two subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the subcommittees dealing with Asia policy and nonproliferation, will hold their own hearing, “The Iran-North Korea Strategic Alliance,” a topic I addressed to a limited extent in “Arsenal of Terror.” The hearing announcement does not include any witnesses from the administration, but will include (among others) investigative journalist Claudia Rosett and Larry Niksch, formerly with the Congressional Research Service.

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In retrospect, it was North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013 that collapsed congressional support for “strategic patience.” Congress never showed much enthusiasm for it, but until 2013, its skepticism was mostly expressed by Republicans. Even the comically short-lived Leap Day Agreement failed to raise much organized opposition in 2012. Still, it was obvious to anyone who paid attention that the administration was paralyzed and out of ideas. Even prominent former administration officials admitted as much.

Congress’s 2013 revolt, led by the new Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce, was bipartisan, organized, and expressed in the form of comprehensive sanctions legislation.*** Royce was joined by Ranking Member Elliot Engel, many other prominent Democrats, 147 co-sponsors in all, and eventually, the full House.

This year, the Senate has joined the House in questioning the State Department’s lack of a credible response to North Korea’s continued proliferation, to the Commission of Inquiry report, and to the Sony cyberattack and threats — in short, its apparent lack of any coherent North Korea policy whatsoever. Contrary to the concern I’d expressed last week, the controversy over Iran will not monopolize Congress’s energy for the foreseeable future after all.

This week’s hearings will likely cement congressional frustration with the administration’s policy (or lack of one). Only time will tell if that frustration, in turn, will be enough to frustrate any grasp at Agreed Framework 3.0, but it certainly won’t make it any easier.

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* If you’re reading this on Wednesday, please don’t go to the Rayburn Building this afternoon to see this hearing. It was actually held on Tuesday — sorry! I’ll link the video when it’s published on line.

**  I clarified the original post to indicate that this is a subcommittee hearing, not a full committee hearing.

*** Full disclosure.

 

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