House Committee On Foreign Affairs Convenes to Discuss North Korea’s Recent Failed Rocket Launch and New Leader

Earlier this week, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing with a panel of four expert witnesses to hear statements and field questions relating to current relations between Pyongyang and the United States, particularly in light of North Korea’s recent failed missile launch that was purported to merely be an attempt to put a new weather satellite into orbit but was widely viewed as a flagrant test of ICBM missile technology.

The committee’s expert panel consisted of Frederick Fleitz, managing editor of the Langley Intelligence Group Network (LIGNET) and former senior CIA analyst, Michael Green, former Senior Asian Affairs Director of the National Security Council, Scott Snyder, the US – North Korea policy director on the Council for Foreign Affairs, and Patrick Cronin of the Council for New American Security.

The hearing opened with statements from a few of the committee members, including a statement from ranking committee member Howard Berman (D-CA) who emphasized China’s continuing propping up of the North Korean regime within the context of China’s own rather poor international record of human rights violations. Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) went into detail to explain the role of the funding of hard currency in Pyongyang’s dealings, highlighting the fact that North Korean’s poverty even at the governmental level evinces a thinly veiled, illicit subsidy effort on  the part of China that he sees as the only reality that made the recent failed rocket launch possible. He cites the testimony from a defected propagandist who stated the top priority within the North Korean government is the collection of hard currency with which to further nuclear ambitions and effective ICBM technology. His summary point was that the most promising avenue to diplomatic pressure would to be to find ways to pinch such funding, nearly all of which is illicit under current international law and existing sanctions.

Rounding out the committee’s opening statements was a short rant by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) who only offered even passing reference to North Korea as he spent his allotted time rather ambiguously rebuking President Barack Obama’s entire foreign policy approach of engagement. His implication seemed to be that anything short of immediate forceful intervention was playing pat to the current situation not only with North Korea but with Iran and Syria. When the hearing eventually passed into the Q&A portion, Rep. Chabot put no questions to the panel and offered no further comment.

The first to offer his five-minute, condensed expert statement, Frederick Feitz opined that the failed rocket launch last week was simultaneously a test of the NPRK’s ICBM capability as well as an ostensible test of American diplomatic resolve by a regime that seeks to gauge how distracted the US has grown by Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria–all of which has become characteristic of North Korea’s provocation-based diplomacy. Coming after the so-called ‘Leap Day’ food aid deal, Pyongyang historically engages in a patter of behavior of such provocations after gaining some ground in international negotiations that is then responded to by further negotiations where the regime often finds itself talking to Western diplomats prepared to offer even further concessions as long as the North Korean’s posturing will quiet down; when they have continuously failed to adhere, the cycle begins all over again.

Fleitz decried the international response to the launch as ‘weak’, the UN particular continuing to find itself essentially crippled of any genuine pressure due to veto power by China and Russia, always used to keep the DPRK and a geopolitical arm’s length. He went on to say the evidence seems to suggest that the young successor, Kim Jong-un, has consolidated full leadership (military backing in particular, potentially troublesome generals having long ago been liquidated by his late father) and inherited a robust and varied cache of WMD projects. The available intelligence, according to Fleitz, suggests that the Kim Jong-un regime is in possession of an amount of plutonium to allow for a minimum of six nuclear warheads to be produced and that their pursuit of highly-enriched uranium almost certainly continues. He concluded by saying that the diplomacy of US relations with both Iran and North Korea, considering their shared ambitions toward armed, intimidating sovereignty, are justly intertwined, and how the US deals with one will effect negotiations with the others–his comments coming after initial international talks with Iran opened earlier this month.

Michael Green quickly dismissed any notion that there was any semblance of ‘breathing room’ in tensions after the North Korean rocket disintegrated shortly after takeoff, surely embarrassing the new regime and evincing just how hollow their posturing tends to be. He referenced a very reliable historical record that predicts a fresh underground nuclear test is almost assured to come in the near future. He also stated that one of the most pressing threats of the DPRK’s progress in nuclear technology is a repeat of their past history of enabling third-party transfer to various sympathetic Middle Eastern tyrannies. Green cited traced evidence in stockpiles from Libya and Syria as proof of previous transfers, with no sign that Kim Jong-un would think twice about doing so again, with Iran and Burma as likely recipients.  In his opinion the US should proceed with stern, refreshingly consistent pressure in the form of more financially effective sanctions and a renewed effort to interdict the threat of third-party WMD materiel transfer.

Scott Snyder outlined several building blocks to what he perceived to be an effective diplomatic path with North Korea. Like the rest of the panel, he repeatedly emphasized a need for stronger international response to North Korea’s hostile posturing. He said he was troubled by the degree of reliance on China as something of a diplomatic proxy in even having working knowledge of North Korean leadership at the highest level, and stated that while the US should continue to work with China on a smaller scale, the US must find a way to deal more directly with upper echelons of Pyongyang. He also criticized the current sanctions, saying that while they effectively close the front door, China leaves the backdoor open and that North Korea continues to mass hard currency through a broad range of illicit activities, much of which is channeled through the support of the Chinese government’s quiet refusal to enforce almost any of the current sanctions. He supports the others’ advice to target sanctions and other political pressure on Chinese banks as a means of pressuring Kim Jong-un in a real way. Finally, Snyder outlined the role of an increased information channel with the North Korean people, some manner of, as he put it, “Long-range education and socialization with Western thinking to help in inducing internal change”.

Patrick Cronin largely re-emphasized the need to wean the US off of second-hand information and engagement, echoing calls for more direct communication channels with the highest level of the North Korean government and an opening up of the cocoon surrounding the North Korean people, saying they’re in terrible need of knowing that there’s an alternative to the desperation and starvation that most North Koreans endure.

As the hearing progressed into the Q&A phase, Rep. Berman put forth several questions probing whether or not there was much hope to be found that China, with what he called a ‘very different security calculus than [the US]’, would be altering its current diplomatic stance towards relation surrounding the DPRK, described as a ‘stability-first’, largely hands-off approach. Fleitz responded that China would most likely be encouraging of further international talks and is probably at work to set such talks up, that there’s no evidence to believe that they’ll be amicable to more stout pressure, and would work to veto any fresh sanctions.

Much of the impassioned discussion during the concluding portion of the hearing came to center on the humanitarian aspect of the North Korean mess, with complicated and somewhat differing opinions on the subject of food aid. All of the expert panel and most of the present committee members seemed to agree that the food aid was a noble and justified expense and gesture to the North Korean people, though there’s a challenging path to walk between attempting to keep millions of North Koreans from starving to death while still pressuring the government effectively. Fleitz in particular voiced the opinion that any food aid programs should be independent of negotiations with the government, as the people should not be punished for the impudent gestures of a government that is arguably the least representative and democratic in the entire world. He did agree that the programs, however, are largely ineffective in any capacity as long as their continue to be no provisions attached to them that ensure the food actually gets to the North Korean people. Rep. Royce agreed on the importance of such provisions, referring to reports that the large majority of the food was kept in the possession of the regime and sold on the Pyongyang food markets as yet another way to pull in the currency needed to fuel WMD research and production. The $800-plus million that was the estimated cost of the recent rocket launch, for instance, could have instead gone to feed millions of the DPRK’s starved and literally stunted populace.

One member of the committee however was less willing to entertain even a nuanced discussion of the history of food aid programs; Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) denounced the programs as categorically ineffective, stated that it was ‘insane and silly’ to send over millions of dollars worth of aid for ‘the nutrition of the North Korean people’, aid that is, in his words, not the US’s responsibility.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) agreed that the US and its diplomatic allies can no longer sideline the humanitarian front to focus on the nuclear one, and  also stated the importance of continued efforts to get information into the propaganda bubble and inform the North Korean people of their plight, a difficult task for a country who has literally now seen generations raised entirely within such a cloistered existence.

As the hearing wrapped up, Michael Green offered a bit of hope, stating that the geopolitical climate — taking into consideration fresh, sympathetic leadership in South Korea, France, Britain — was more conducive than ever to a multilateral approach to engaging North Korea’s deplorable humanitarian catastrophe, in particular the vile practice by China of ‘forced repatriation’ of those few refugees that manage to escape across the border from North Korea.