by Tim Shorrock
The first Senate hearing on North Korea since President Trump came to office reveals a Congress bereft of any ideas except regime change. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee appears to be torn between sanctions that haven’t worked and military action that would almost certainly trigger a wider war.
“Something obviously has got to give,” declared Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the committee, as he opened the hearing Tuesday. He called North Korea, which has produced five atomic bombs and tested at least 20 long-range missiles over the last 10 years, “one of the most urgent security challenges facing the United States.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the top Democrat on the committee, opened with the grave observation that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is in the “final stage” of testing an ICBM and joining Russia and China as “the only countries in the world with the ability to launch attacks on the United States.” But America alone “has little chance of stopping” this trend, so must work with South Korea and Japan to resolve the situation, he argued.
In that context, he noted approvingly that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was leaving Wednesday for South Korea and Japan. Mattis will discuss military and diplomatic options, including the Pentagon’s decision to move forward with the deployment in Korea of the missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
Cardin also noted that Trump tweeted recently that North Korea’s ICBM launch “will not happen,” and speculated whether the president was drawing a red line with that declaration.
If stopping such a launch is the intent, Corker laid out three choices for the United States. One is “pro-active regime change” aimed at toppling the government of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s 30-something hereditary leader, through “non-kinetic” (or non-military) means such as stricter sanctions. Another is to “exploit pockets of regime instability,” such as the spectacular defection to South Korea last month of Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s ambassador to London, to convince others in the North that nukes and political isolation are not the way to go.
The third would be collaborating with U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan on a pre-emptive strike on Kim’s missile facilities. “Otherwise, we’re staring down the barrel of an ICBM,” Corker said.
Much of the hearing was devoted to China and how it can be pressured to increase its sanctions on its old ally in Pyongyang. Other questions focused on the chimerical American belief that foreign powers could accelerate the unification of Korea—under the pro-U.S. South, of course—and bring about stability by eliminating the North as a nation-state.
The Regime Change Option
Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, set the general framework for the hearings. He is an outspoken proponent for regime change and using military pressure against the North Korea, which he referred to several times as “the DPRK killing machine.”
“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,” he stated, making the case that the DPRK is “prepared to win a limited nuclear war and force a nuclear showdown with the U.S. where the U.S. blinks.”
Asked how the White House should respond to an ICBM launch, Eberhardt suggested that the United States could covertly go after North Korea’s fleet of submarines capable of carrying missiles. “What happens if they don’t return to port?” he asked.
In general, the hearing reflected the U.S. view that America is an innocent bystander in a peninsula it has dominated militarily for 71 years. According to this conceptual framework, held by both Democrats and Republicans, massive US military exercises conducted several times a year with South Korea, the Pentagon’s frequent dispatches of nuclear-armed warplanes to the peninsula, and a military alliance with a high-tech Japan have nothing to do with Pyongyang’s fears.
Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist at the Council of Foreign Relations, did offer one reason for Kim’s insistence on building nuclear missiles. “North Korea has decided based on lessons from Iran, Iraq, and Libya that its only sure means of survival is to be ‘too nuclear’ to fail,” he said, a recognition of the blowback created by U.S. regime-changing policies in the Middle East and Africa.
Corker seemed to understand his point. “What they learned is, you get rid of your WMDs, we take you out.” The United States, of course, used the pretense of weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq and pressured Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi to eliminate his nuclear program a few years before the Obama administration supported a UN military offensive against his regime.
One note of caution came from Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA). “Should we in fact be talking about pre-emptive attacks?” he asked Snyder after hearing the idea floated several times. Snyder’s response was to urge that such planning be done in secret. “I support US and South Korean military planning, but it’s not wise to broadcast it,” he said, adding that the allies “need to manage it in a quiet and effective way.”
Markey’s inquiry drew approval from John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University and a close observer of the Korean peninsula. “Good line of [questioning] from @SenMarkey pointing out how ‘decapitation’ threats on [Kim] increase risk of escalation/nuclear war,” he tweeted from Seoul. He also suggested a question for Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who left the hearing early. “What about negotiating a freeze as starting point for longterm diplomatic strategy?” he asked.
The Diplomatic Alternative
Indeed, not once in the 90-minute session did anybody offer an alternative to the militaristic path that was the hallmark of Obama’s approach to Korea and appears to be Trump’s as well. Excluded, for example, were any proponents of direct negotiations with the Kim government, as suggested in recent months by a range of former U.S. officials experienced with the region.
Among them is former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who considered launching a U.S. military attack on the North’s nuclear facilities in 1994. “I believe it is time to try diplomacy that would actually have a chance to succeed,” Perry wrote in The Washington Post on January 6, just days after Kim declared his intention to test an ICBM that could potentially carry a nuclear weapon far beyond East Asia.
But Eberhardt scoffed at the idea of negotiations. “Engagement will never produce” an agreement to phase out North Korea’s nuclear weapons, he said. “It’s an illusion to engage North Korea into denuclearization.” The Kim regime, he added in his written testimony, “is the North Korean nuclear threat; that threat will not end until the DPRK disappears.”
Snyder did offer a suggestion that Trump appoint a “senior envoy” for North Korea who would report directly to the White House and separate the nuclear issue “from the overloaded agenda in Sino-US relations.”
But he admitted that the “window of opportunity” for actual negotiations “may have closed,” and suggested that the best alternative to military action may be to pressure China to tighten its sanctions by shutting down coal exports to Pyongyang and cutting North Korean access to its banking system. At the same time, he warned that the U.S. “must avoid the trap of unilateral military action that would weaken alliances” with South Korea and Japan.
“It’s unconscionable to me that the hearing included no voices calling for engagement or serious diplomacy,” said Christine Ahn, a Korean-American activist who has organized citizens’ visits to North and South Korea to encourage the peace process. In addition to an envoy, she said in an email, the United States could establish a liaison office “that could help facilitate the humanitarian exchanges that can be the starting point for mutual trust-building.”
Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based writer who was raised in Japan and South Korea during the Cold War. He is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing.