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June 2, 2022
Congress Divided on North Korea, Confused by Bush Policy
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Jonathan M. Katz

Complaining that the Bush administration has offered little guidance as to how to interpret the behavior of Kim Jong Il’s government, members of Congress have been putting forward their own solutions to the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.

The congressional ferment served as a backdrop to Bush’s May meetings with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Some legislators went as far as traveling to North Korea. A bipartisan group of six lawmakers began a fact-finding visit to North Korea May 30 in an effort to ease tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. Curt Weldon (R-PA), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, led the group, which included Republican Representatives Joe Wilson (SC) and Jeff Miller (FL) and Democratic Representatives Eliot Engel (NY) and Texans Solomon Ortiz and Silvestre Reyes.

Some congressional leaders remain committed to diplomacy. One round of talks between North Korea, the United States, and China dissolved earlier than expected April 25 when Pyongyang declared itself a nuclear power. But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN), for one, remains convinced that problems could be resolved in a future round of negotiations.

“At the moment, we really need to let the diplomatic route in which we are very active proceed,” Lugar said. “[The negotiations are] not for show or going through the motions.”

Roh’s meeting with Bush was a sign that cooperation is possible on the peninsula, Lugar said in an interview two days before Koizumi’s visit to Crawford, Texas. Lugar said he was further encouraged by plans for a June meeting between Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Although he thinks diplomatic pressure is the most sensible way to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, Lugar said he believes the threat of force will strengthen the stance of U.S. negotiators at the table. He worries, however, about the possibility of accidental war stemming from misunderstandings, according to a senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The senator himself called the prospect of war “undesirable” and said with some concern that military action “had not been ruled out.”

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he also believes in negotiations. Levin has been critical of what he describes as the Bush administration’s aggressive stance. The assistance of South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia will also be necessary to deal with Pyongyang, Levin said.

On the other hand, some on Capitol Hill want the Bush administration to take a firmer approach with North Korea. The Missile Threat Reduction Act of 2003, which is being prepared for a vote in the House, would threaten sanctions against North Korea and any country that purchases nuclear technologies from Pyongyang. The item, a section of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for fiscal years 2004 and 2005, was introduced by Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), ranking member on the House International Relations Committee.

The act is intended to provide a legal framework for preventing incidents such as Yemen’s December 2002 purchase of North Korean Scud missiles. That missile shipment was intercepted en route to Yemen—and released. The United States did not have authority to hold the missiles, White House spokesman Ari Fleisher said at the time.

Citing a Bush policy he described as “all hat and no cowboy,” a House International Relations Committee aide said the act would force the administration to be tougher on Pyongyang by imposing sanctions against governments who sponsor corporations and individuals involved in missile trading. Lantos’ bill would double the current two-year period of sanctions. The legislation also proposes a three-year probationary period of close scrutiny, making an effective penalty period of seven years.

The framers of the act seek to end a tradition of dismissing sanctions against proliferators through entirely classified proceedings, the staffer said. The desire not to embarrass allied countries has led the United States to waive sanctions behind closed doors in years past, he said. The Bush administration would still be able to waive sanctions against governments and individuals but would be asked to file an open document noting that the initial violation occurred.

The Lantos measure would provide up to $750 million to countries not listed on the State Department’s terrorist list that shut down their nuclear programs. Because it is on that list, North Korea would not be eligible for the program. But Lantos’ staffer said the intended effect would be to discourage other countries that have shown an interest in acquiring nuclear capabilities from following North Korea’s path.

Another bill in the House would end the transfer of nuclear-related technologies to the North. Under the Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea’s energy needs were to be partly met through the U.S. transfer of technology, such as light-water nuclear reactors, in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to shut down its plutonium program.

Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), who sponsored the amendment to the 2003 Energy Policy act, has vehemently pushed the Bush administration and Energy Department to stop such transfers.

“Whatever steps are taken in future negotiations to reduce the threat posed by the government in Pyongyang, providing additional nuclear technology and know-how should be off the table,” said Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA), the bill’s other sponsor. The House passed the full bill, including the Cox-Markey amendment, in April. It is now pending before the Senate.

Frustration with the tenets of the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea is pervasive in the Senate as well.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, was scathing in his criticism of the Clinton administration’s bargain with Pyongyang. “The greatest foreign policy failure of the Clinton administration was entering into a deal that they could not verify or enforce,” McCain said.

Clinton administration officials have defended the agreement as necessary to bring the 1994 conflict over the North’s attempts to develop a nuclear weapons program to a peaceful resolution. For example, Ambassador Robert Gallucci, a key architect of the Agreed Framework, challenged McCain and other critics to come up with a workable framework of their own.

Indeed, in the current crisis, lawmakers are also not relying solely on diplomatic “sticks.” As “carrots,” Lugar, Levin, and other leaders have said that humanitarian assistance to the famished people of North Korea could be on the table. Many on the Hill have also said that they would consider assisting Pyongyang’s energy needs as long as they could be assured that the power would not be used to produce weapons.