The Trump administration says it has a plan for getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. But lawmakers from both parties think it may be a fantasy.
During a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Thursday, Susan Thornton, a top State Department Asia official, laid out how the Trump administration is using a variety of strategies to isolate North Korea diplomatically and squeeze its economy.
She said the US was succeeding in cutting off funds for Pyongyang’s regime with tools like US sanctions on North Korea’s financial networks and United Nations sanctions that cumulatively deprive North Korea of billions in trade revenue. She also described how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is vigorously pressing countries around the world to comply with UN sanctions and take steps to ensure North Korea doesn’t circumvent them with covert operations.
And while she acknowledged that the US intelligence community believed Pyongyang is completely committed to holding on to its nuclear weapons, she said the administration was committed to “testing” that idea.
“We have yet to see a notable change in [North Korea]’s dangerous behavior, or any signs that it is willing or interested in serious talks on denuclearization at this stage. That simply means we must increase the pressure and isolation,” Thornton said in her prepared testimony.
But a number of lawmakers said they were skeptical that the administration’s strategy of diplomatic and economic pressure had any chance of working. They pointed to intelligence community assessments indicating that Pyongyang was determined to hold on to its weapons at all costs, and suggested that the White House approach was bound to fail.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker (TN), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Tillerson is “working against the unified view of our intelligence agencies.”
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner (VA) was also skeptical, saying, “There may be a contradiction between the conclusions of the intelligence community and what the secretary of state is trying to do.”
Warner added that he found the intelligence agencies’ reports “fairly chilling.”
And Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz (HI) said that he can’t see the Trump administration’s isolation campaign having any effect for a long time.
“I’m with you on the strategic objective of getting Kim Jong Un to change his calculus,” Schatz told Thornton. “But I don’t see that happening in the next three to six months, or even in the next, you know, six to 18 months. And yet we are in a crisis right now.”
Most North Korea watchers would say the senators’ concern about the country’s unshakable fixation on keeping its nuclear program is right.
Experts think North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons
Lawmakers are right to worry that isolation and sanctions are unlikely to inspire Pyongyang to turn over its most prized possession, according to intelligence officials and experts.
Dan Coats, the US director of national intelligence, said in a prepared statement for a Senate hearing in May that his office believes North Korea will do anything it can to keep its nuclear weapons.
“Pyongyang’s enshrinement of the possession of nuclear weapons in its constitution, while repeatedly stating that nuclear weapons are the basis for its survival, suggests that Kim does not intend to negotiate them away at any price," he said in the statement.
Scholars of North Korea say Kim is well aware that in recent times dictators who have failed to build nuclear weapons were eventually ousted and killed.
“They saw Iraq, which had an unrealized nuclear program, get taken out,” James Person, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, said during an interview in May. “They saw [Libyan dictator] Muammar Qaddafi voluntarily give up his nuclear program in exchange for integration and improved relations with the world — only for the NATO-backed rebels to take him out in the street in 2011.”
Experts believe that Kim sees nuclear weapons as the one bulwark that can prevent similar things from happening to his regime. “Kim thinks that the ‘treasured sword of justice’ protects them and guarantees the survival of their system,” Jonathan Pollack, an Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, told me during an interview in May.
But despite widespread skepticism among analysts, the Trump administration is pressing ahead with claims that North Korea can be convinced to give up its nuclear ambitions with enough pressure. Unless North Korea shows signs of backing down, expect that skepticism to grow.