Prepare for pain.

Source: Xinhua/KCNA via Getty Images

Congress to Push Obama on North Korea Sanctions

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

Now that Iran sanctions are on the verge of being rolled back, Congressional attention is turning to increasing and tightening sanctions on North Korea, a country with a growing nuclear weapons program and that continues to threaten and provoke the international community.

Oct. 10 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea, and Western governments are concerned that Kim Jong Un will mark the holiday by launching a rocket or satellite, or even detonating a nuclear bomb for the fourth time. There’s new activity at  North Korea's nuclear test site, but nobody really knows what, if anything, the country is planning to do next.

Regardless, North Korea has amassed enough nuclear material to make about nine bombs and will have enough for about 80 weapons by 2020, according to the highly regarded Institute for Science and International Security. Earlier this year, the chief of  the U.S. nuclear defense command said that Pyongyang now has the technology to reach the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile. Such estimates are driving the Senate to increase pressure on Pyongyang.

“The policy of strategic patience has been a strategic failure,” Cory Gardner, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy, told me in an interview.

Gardner plans to introduce Tuesday a new bill that would direct the Barack Obama administration to impose and tighten sanctions on North Korea for a range of illicit activities, including violations of United Nations resolutions, development of ballistic missile technology, illegal arms transfers, cybercrimes and espionage, human rights violations and much more.

The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act is co-sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Marco Rubio and James Risch. The problems it seeks to address will be the subject of a subcommittee hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Gardner tried hard to get a State Department official to testify at the hearing, for example Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim or Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Robert King, he said, but the State Department couldn’t make the witnesses available. As Gardner sees it, their absence is symbolic of a U.S. policy that has neglected the growing threat of North Korea for years.

“This bill actually puts teeth into a policy that has been lacking in action,” he said. “All we are doing right now is talking about what North Korea shouldn’t be doing and following it up with a few cherry-picked sanctions here and there. But that’s not stopping North Korea.”

Of course, the bill is a long way from becoming a law, but support for sanctions against rogue regimes is usually high in Congress, Gardner argued. Even if the bill is enacted, it gives the president national security waivers that could be used to avoid imposing sanctions. In that case, however,  the administration would have to explain its inaction.

Following the cyberhack of Sony last year, the Obama administration did use executive orders to sanction 10 North Korean officials and three state-run organizations, including the country’s intelligence service.  The White House indicated that there would be other non-public responses. North Korea was already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world.

The bill seeks to codify those new sanctions in law and directs the president to name those entities that are responsible for cybercrime and cyber-espionage emanating out of North Korea. The U.S. intelligence community has blamed the North Korean government for the Sony hack but has not publicly identified the individuals and organizations responsible.

Gardner also wants to legislate sanctions on any person, organization, or government that has “materially contributed” to North Korea’s nuclear, ballistic missile, WMD or weapons programs, even in an advisory capacity. That could implicate Iran, but Gardner says that shouldn’t affect the Iran nuclear deal, which lifts many sanctions on Tehran.

“The administration has said time and time again that sanctions we impose outside the nuclear regime will not complicate the Iran deal,” he said.

Sanctions are not a panacea and the administration’s strategy is closely coordinated with South Korea and Japan, the two countries most directly threatened by North Korea. There’s also a broad recognition that only China has enough real leverage to effect change, and despite cooling relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, China clearly prioritizes stability.

According to his prepared remarks, Jay Lefkowitz, who served as the State Department’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea during the Bush administration, will testify that “while none of North Korea’s neighbors may be happy with the current state of affairs in North Korea, the status quo may well be more attractive to each of them than the uncertain future of a sudden regime collapse.”

Given those realities, along with the growing North Korea threat, there’s a need to invigorate America’s approach to the rogue state, if not with Gardner’s legislation, then in some other way. Some mechanism of increased pressure is needed to push Kim Jong Un to accept a new round of serious engagement. Without it, President Obama’s legacy on non-proliferation will include one huge and dangerous failure.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net