U.S. Resolve and Decisive Leadership Can Turn the Tide in North Korea
Since the Hudson Institute's establishment under Herman Kahn in 1961, it emerged during the Cold War as a leading voice against the irrational madness of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It was the sober realism of institutes like Hudson that eventually paved the road for Ronald Reagan’s strategic vision of transcending nuclear weapons with missile defenses, thus shattering MAD and detente, and handing over the Soviet Union, relegating it to the ash heap of history.
It is entirely fitting for us to gather here amidst the nuclear crisis of our age.
Nearly seventy years ago, war erupted on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Il-sung, a man who plunged an entire nation into a collective nightmare of starvation and deprivation in the name of Juche ideology and Marxist-Leninist revolution, sought to subsume South Korea by force into the democratic people’s so-called paradise. America spilt considerable sweat and blood and lives in Northeast Asia to stymie the march of this madman and the campaign of Communism.
We are gathered here today, because there is still a Kim in North Korea. There remains a guiding ideology of fervent racist superiority in Pyongyang, and the same desperate urge of old enlivens the regime today: finishing the work begun by Kim Il-sung to unite its Southern neighbor under totalitarian tyranny.
Like his father before him, Kim Jong-un intends to accomplish this with nuclear blackmail.
The fact that North Korea is close, as close as it is to atomic coercion is an unmitigated bipartisan failure. For nearly three decades, Democrats and Republicans have taken turns overlooking the horrors of the Korean War and accepting the Beijing-Pyongyang propaganda line that North Korea merely seeks survival from a dangerous America.
Buying into this flawed ideology, the United States initiated an unbroken succession of failed policies, beginning with Bill Clinton and Wendy Sherman’s “Agreed Framework” in 1994. That, much like what the JCPOA is doing for Iran today, paved North Korea’s path to the bomb. When Kim Jong-il predictably revealed his nuclear program in 2005, President Bush pitched incentives to the despot, reversing Ronald Reagan’s decision of twenty years prior to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, in exchange for Pyongyang’s promises to freeze its nuclear program. That didn't work.
When I joined the Senate in 2013, North Korea had already responded to that offer, and to Barack Obama’s delusional “strategic patience” policy. The response was a nuclear test. What then transpired in 2016 — a nuclear test in January, a space launch vehicle test the following month, and a boosted fission detonation in September — marked a significant shift in the conflict. Beyond expressing contempt for Seoul and Washington, Kim unmistakably signaled that the North’s long sought-after ICBM capability was perilously close to completion.
It was then that I initiated a sustained, incremental campaign, founded on American strength and leadership, to change Washington’s North Korea policy.
I began with the most urgent action required in that moment: ensuring that the Department of Defense delivered and deployed THAAD missile defense batteries in South Korea. At the time, Seoul lacked requisite missile defenses to credibly deny or limit damage of a North Korean No-dong missile carrying a nuclear payload. Moreover, South Koreans were feeling the brunt of Chinese economic coercion merely for considering the deployment of THAAD. In correspondence with President Obama, I called for the immediate deployment of THAAD to South Korea, and called on the president to protect our ally from the PRC’s hypocritical boycott.
It took President Trump’s leadership to act on that invitation to deploy THAAD, a reality not unnoticed by Xi Jinping. This should serve as a prelude to further missile defense batteries on the peninsula. For China must understand that, should our ally South Korea desire more defenses, we will no longer tolerate their financial intimidation.
Defending South Korea, however, was only the first move. Achieving material change in Northeast Asia remained impossible as long as Washington continued to exercise a policy of appeasement. We desperately lacked the strategic clarity founded on American leadership. Thus, in August 2017, I laid out a comprehensive strategy to degrade Kim’s growing power and to denuclearize his regime with three components.
First, nullify North Korea's missile advances in the long term by deploying a space-based missile defense layer. Second, stymie Kim’s illicit cash flow with aggressive sanctions enforcement. And third, challenge the lies that underpin his hold on power with dedicated, persistent information operations.
Implementing such a comprehensive strategy required a decisive break from the past. Changed thinking always precedes changed actions.
For this reason, I prioritized re-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Bush administration delisted North Korea not because the regime changed or ceased to sponsor violence, but because Washington believed it would bring peace in our time. Returning to a Reagan policy of “peace through strength” to defeat radical ideologies and deter aggression remained impossible as long as this belief persisted.
Our current task is to align our policy with this renewed conviction. Our past presumption of fault and culpability wreaked havoc on our sanctions policy. You may have noticed that there is no lack of North Korea sanctions bills on Capitol Hill. Now we need to act.
The North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, which I enthusiastically cosponsored, compelled President Obama to actually implement the law. A sadly novel concept. Congress then went further, passing the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, actually nicknamed ‘CAATSA,’ which included my legislation that I had introduced to issue a determination on North Korea as state sponsor of terrorism. That legislation passed into law and within months of President Trump signing it, the administration re-listed North Korea and imposed corresponding sanctions.
In the wake of Otto Warmbier’s tragic death, acknowledging the unmistakable reality that North Korea is and was a state sponsor of terrorism was as critical moment of honesty. Of candor. Of realism. This moment signaled a shift, a course correction in our approach to comprehensively addressing the nuclear threat. And in fact, the fact that we won the argument is significant. It was a powerful indicator when the Vice President Pence issued a stern warning at the DMZ that the era of strategic patience is over.
Two weeks ago in the Washington Post, I contended that it’s now time to put Kim on his heels - we’ve waited too long wondering when he would test his next device or provoke South Korea - holding our financial penalties in reserve until his latest outburst.
We’ve allowed North Korea to set the tempo of their nuclear pursuit. It’s time for Kim to fear what we will do – not the other way around. My suggestion was simple: seize the initiative by announcing sanctions against North Korean and third party entities on our own timing and our own pace. This is critical if we are to stymie the mafia-like operation that is North Korea: we must target its partners.
Last month, the Institute for Science and International Security identified 49 countries responsible for enabling sanctions violations. That is a staggering figure, made even more concerning by the geographic diversity of the offending countries. From Eurasia and the Middle East to Africa and Latin America, nefarious regimes including China, Russia, Iran and Cuba — as well as governments with weak export controls — have bankrolled North Korea's nuclear pursuits.
We don’t need a new law to target these entities; we simply need resolve and belief in American power defending American interests with a clear-eyed understanding of these offenders - especially China. While I credit President Trump for Chinese President Xi Jinping's limited cooperation, recent reports of Chinese vessels violating sanctions by selling oil to North Korea on the high seas only reinforces my long-held skepticism of Beijing's empty promises.
The process of denuclearizing North Korea remains incremental and deliberate. I believe we can turn the tide on the Peninsula — but only if we adopt a new framework informed by U.S. resolve and decisive leadership. I will continue working with the administration and with my colleagues in the Senate to secure nothing less than the complete nuclear disarmament of Kim Jong-un, and the restoration of peace to Northeast Asia.