Hearings at the House Foreign Affairs Committee have traditionally been occasions when Special Envoys related their latest efforts to get North Korea to agree to behave until it chooses not to. Invariably, most of the Democrats would applaud them for it, most of the Republicans would express mild skepticism, and the Congress as a whole would defer. Until now, there was never any other alternative up for discussion. Today’s hearing was a break with that tradition. It was the first time I’ve seen the Chairman of a congressional committee seize the agenda. The absence of any serving State Department envoy from today’s proceedings was a telling sign of that. At the risk of saying something bold, today’s hearing — and the legislation Royce intends to introduce next — may be game-changers for North Korea policy.
The hearing was nominally about North Korea’s illicit activities, but it was really about much more than that. It was Royce’s day to make the case that “our North Korea policy must change” from what he called “a bipartisan failure” of Agreed Frameworks. Royce was strongly critical of President Bush for lifting financial pressure on North Korea prematurely in 2006, and of President Obama for a mostly passive policy of “strategic patience.” Royce and his witnesses made a strong case for a “a better alternative” — the financial constriction of North Korea, to include third-party sanctions against Chinese companies doing business with the North.
With one exception — I’ll get to that later — none of the Democrats on the Committee expressed disagreement with that. At the very least, Ranking Member Elliot Engel wanted the administration to make greater use of existing legal authorities to sanction North Korea. Rep. Brad Sherman and Rep. Theodore Deutch both seemed inclined to support the kind of tough sanctions Royce wants. Deutch, in particular, came out strong on the human rights issue, calling for the U.S. to “name and shame” those responsible for human rights violations, and to “change the narrative” to focus more on North Korea’s crimes against humanity. Several members referred to reports that China has agreed to support a new U.N. Security Council resolution, but this seemed to have little effect, first, because no one knew the details, and second, because no one seemed quite convinced that China would enforce it.
(The other piece of news that was mentioned in today’s hearing was North Korea’s threat to renounce the 1953 Armistice. Or should I say, re-renounce, because North Korea had already renounced it in May of 2009, carried out two attacks against South Korea in 2010, and has never said since then that it would abide by it.)
The most astonishing agreement came from Ambassador Joseph DiTrani, a consummate foreign policy and intelligence establishment insider who has long hewed toward the “engagement” side of the North Korea debate. It should tell you something that Obama Administration trusted DiTrani enough to have sent him to Pyongyang last summer to talk to the North Koreans.
All of the witnesses were highly effective, and they complemented each other well. Amb. DiTrani, the Democratic witness, was the voice of the establishment’s world-weary disappointment and frustration with Kim Jong Un. David Asher brought the experience of having tried, with considerable success, the polices that Royce now wants to bring back in an even tougher form (do not miss the recommendations in Asher’s written statement). The star performer today, I’m proud to say, was my friend and collaborator, Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee, whose gravitas and eloquence drew the lion’s share of questions from the members.
Watch for yourself.
Before this hearing started, I warned Prof. Lee that Brad Sherman, the hawkish and quick-witted California Democrat, would have the most entertaining remarks and potentially, the hardest questions. I also warned him that Eni Faleomavaega, the representative from American Samoa, might be entertaining in an different way. I was proven right on both counts. Faleomavaega’s tirade about the hypocrisy of the entire global non-proliferation system was … strange, and internally inconsistent with his expressed fears of wider nuclear proliferation in Asia. (I’m tempted to be even less kind, but in fact, I know Faleomaveaga to be a good and decent human being, so I won’t be.) To compare Dennis Rodman’s visit to ping-pong diplomacy misses the distinction that ping-pong diplomacy was real diplomacy, an early payoff from a long and patient outreach by Nixon and Kissinger that could only work because Nixon and Mao saw an alignment between their nations’ interests. Rodman represents nothing of the kind, and he’s far too leaky a vessel to carry that much water. Sherman correctly answered Faleomaveaga’s bizarre suggestion (1:16) that Iran was building nukes because of its fear of Israel by noting (1:26) that Israel hasn’t called for a world without Persia. Faleomavaega’s closing “clarification” only violated The First Rule of Holes.
Overall, I left the hearing believing that the mainstream has overtaken me. If the comments of the Members today were any indication, the House is ready to follow Royce. It’s premature to predict the success of Royce’s legislation, of course, before Royce has even introduced it. No doubt, some in the Senate and more in the Administration will find it strong drink, although I wonder whether (1) Sen. Menendez has either the juice or the inclination to fight it, (2) whether that’s even less so if Sen. McCain gives a tough bill solid backing, and (3) whether President Obama really wants to expend any political capital for Kim Jong Un’s sake. We’ll see.
See also Reuters’s coverage of the hearing, here.
I’ll close this post by noting that today is the 60th anniversary of the death of my favorite composer, Sergei Prokofiev. Yuja Wang is not Korean, but she’s a lovely young woman, and her beautiful performance of Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto reminds us of all that Asia has to contribute to the greatness of our civilization. That gives us occasion to mourn the stifling of so much human potential in the wretchedness of North Korea. It is, of course, the anniversary of Stalin’s death, too, which reminds us that terrible times don’t last forever.
Update: One point that the hearings didn’t clarify sufficiently, in my view, is the concept of “comingling,” which I’ve been on something of a tear about lately. Marcus Noland is quoted by the AP as estimating that less than 10% of North Korea’s income comes from illicit activities today. Sung Yoon Lee and David Asher were in the 30-50% range, but for the sake of argument, let’s say Marc is right. He keeps a pretty close eye on the trade figures, and is a very able practitioner of the dark arts that allow him to spot unaccounted-for income. Two responses:
1. It’s difficult to have much confidence in even the best estimate of this kind, given the subject matter and the various parties we’re dealing with.
2. Under generally accepted anti-money laundering principles, funds that are 10% illegally derived and 90% “legitimate” may be seized in their entirety. That’s how criminal enterprises are destroyed.
3. Is the objective to get North Korea out of the dope, counterfeiting, and money laundering business, or is it to make sure the funds North Korea receives — regardless of source — are not used for its nuclear and missile programs? I thought it was both. If that’s the case, then at a bare minimum, you need to apply some kind of financial controls to ALL sources of North Korean income.