Lawmakers Lament 'Bipartisan Failure' of North Korea Policy

Experts: U.S. can't denuclearize Pyongyang through diplomacy

Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un / AP
January 31, 2017

Lawmakers and leading experts on Tuesday discussed the failed U.S. policy toward North Korea, with the experts noting that diplomacy alone will not convince Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear program.

"North Korea is continuing down steadily, methodically, and relentlessly on a path whose intended endpoint is a credible capacity to hit New York and Washington with nuclear weapons," Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Tuesday morning.

"America's policy for nuclear nonproliferation in North Korea is a prolonged, and thoroughly bipartisan, failure."

North Korea has continued its nuclear and ballistic missile development in defiance of sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. Last year alone, Pyongyang conducted more than 20 missile launches and two nuclear tests. After one of the tests, dictator Kim Jong Un's regime claimed to have detonated a nuclear warhead that could fit onto a ballistic missile.

A top North Korean official told NBC News last week that the regime is ready to test fire an intercontinental ballistic missile "at any time."

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), who chairs the committee, said Tuesday that the United States finds itself "staring down the barrel of a North Korean ICBM" and voiced skepticism that pursuing denuclearization of North Korea remains a reasonable policy objective.

"The reality is pretty bleak," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.). "It has been a bipartisan failure."

In testimony before the committee, the experts—Eberstadt and Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations—indicated that the United States needs to adopt a different strategy to reduce threats from North Korea, possibly by increasing the use of sanctions, ramping up missile defense in the Asia-Pacific, increasing cooperation with allies, and boosting the flow of information into the repressive regime.

Both said that compelling the North Korean regime to relinquish its nuclear weapons program was unlikely, if not impossible.

"The window of opportunity to achieve North Korea's peaceful denuclearization may have closed, and Kim Jong Un has decided based on Iran, Iraq, and Libya, that North Korea must be 'too nuclear' to fail," Snyder said.

It is unclear whether the new administration of Donald Trump has formulated a comprehensive strategy to deal with the evolving North Korean threat, though the president and his cabinet have taken steps to signal U.S. commitment to its allies in the Asia-Pacific.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will on Wednesday embark on his first trip to the Asia-Pacific to meet with his counterparts in South Korea and later Japan to discuss their defense cooperation.

Trump also spoke over the phone with Hwang Kyo-Ahn, the acting president of South Korea, on Sunday. During the phone call, the new president underscored the United States' "ironclad commitment to defend the [Republic of Korea]," according to a White House readout of the call. The two leaders agreed to deepen their joint defense capabilities against the North Korean threat.

Much of the discussion on Tuesday focused on China's support for the North Korean regime, with Snyder proposing that the United States impose secondary sanctions on Chinese partners doing business with North Korea.

"I believe China can become a more responsible citizen in regard to North Korea, but only if it is forced to bear a reputational cost for its sponsorship of that regime," Eberstadt observed.

China has refused to comply fully with international sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United Nations. Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for secretary of state who is expected to face a final confirmation vote this week, said earlier in January that the United States should consider actions to "compel" Beijing to implement sanctions on North Korea.

The United States will soon deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system to South Korea, despite objections from China. Both experts described U.S. missile defense in the Asia-Pacific as essential, but rejected the idea that missile defense capabilities should be used as a "bargaining chip" to press China to cooperate more on punishing North Korea.

During his trip, Mattis is expected to speak with the defense ministers from South Korea and Japan about strengthening trilateral security cooperation.