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Chairman Menendez’s Opening Remarks at SFRC Hearing on U.S. Policy Toward North Korea

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is currently presiding over a full committee hearing on U.S. policy toward North Korea. In light of the recent North Korean nuclear and missile tests, the hearing is intended to provide a broad-based examination of current U.S. policy towards North Korea; to explore what is working and what isn’t – and why; and to offer insights that lead to better policy.

The Senator’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery are below:

Recent developments in North Korea – most notably the February 12, 2013 nuclear test and the December 12, 2012 missile test – highlight the growing threat that North Korea poses to the United States, our allies and friends in the region, and the increasing dangers of severe instability on the Korean Peninsula.  Given this growing threat I believe that this Committee needs to take a close look at current U.S. policy towards North Korea; evaluate its effectiveness; and identify any mid-course corrections or new measures that are required to get our North Korea policy right.  

I understand that as we convene this hearing this morning that up in New York the United Nations Security Council is sitting down, right now, to consider a resolution that imposes additional sanctions on North Korea. This new Security Council Resolution, based on a U.S.-China draft, includes tough new sanctions intended to impede North Korea's ability to develop further its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  These sanctions include targeting the illicit activities of North Korean diplomatic personnel, North Korean banking relationships, illicit transfers of bulk cash, and new travel restrictions. I think that these actions are a step in the right direction – and very much in keeping with the sort of approach that the Ranking Member, Senator Corker and I called for in the “North Korea Non-proliferation and Accountability Act of 2013”, which the Senate passed on February 25 - and I congratulate the administration on moving things forward so effectively at the United Nations. 

But I also believe that we need to do more to better determine how the United States can combine effective sanctions and military countermeasures with strong and realistic diplomacy aimed at North Korea and at China, and with a clear goal of North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program. 

North Korea yesterday made what I consider to be an absurd threat, of a “preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors" in response to the action the United States, China, and others are seeking at the United Nations.  There should be no doubt about our determination, willingness, and capability to neutralize and counter any threat that North Korea may present.

I do not think the regime in Pyongyang wants to commit suicide, but that, as they must surely know, would be the result of any attack on the United States.  But even as we assure that effective military countermeasures are in place to safeguard the United States and our allies, there should also be no doubt about our determination to work with the international community, through peaceful diplomatic means, to achieve a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

Today it is estimated that North Korea has accumulated between 20 to 40 kilograms of plutonium, enough perhaps for 6 to 8 nuclear weapons. It has now conducted three nuclear explosive tests. It has developed a modern gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program to go along with its plutonium stockpile. And it is seeking to develop the capability to mate a nuclear warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile. Taken together, these developments present a growing danger that North Korea may well become a small nuclear power – a scenario which, while bad enough on its own, could well have additional dangerous effects if it leads other nations in the region to reconsider their own commitments to non-proliferation.

Moreover, there is also the continuing danger of further conventional military provocation from North Korea that results in a serious military clash between North and South, and the potential for unintended escalation that  could draw in the United States and China and result in a deadly and dangerous confrontation on the Peninsula.

And, beyond these security concerns, there are also on-going questions about  human rights and the lot of the North Korean people.  Security concerns may be our most important priority on the Peninsula, but they are not our only priority.

It has now been a little over a year since Kim Jung Un took power amid speculation that this transition could lead to a period of instability inside the North, perhaps even leading to collapse.

Yet that instability does not appear to have materialized -- although of course we can never be sure about the future in North Korea. By all appearances, Kim has asserted control over the military and strengthened party institutions. And, contrary to some media hype focused on his education in Switzerland, he has not proved to be a reformer.  It is unclear whether he has any objectives other than maintaining tight control of his political and economic system.

Above all else, North Korea clearly represents a real and growing threat to U.S. national security interests, and therefore deserves our close attention. In time, if its present course remains unaltered, North Korea will pose a direct threat to the United States.  Today, North Korea certainly poses a growing threat to our allies and to American forces in region. It also threatens to undermine the international non-proliferation regime – particularly, as its arsenal grows, by spreading its threat to other counties through a transfer of nuclear technology and materials.  We know, for example, that North Korea has made efforts to proliferate nuclear technology in the past, building a plutonium separation plant in Syria which Israel destroyed by bombing it before its completion, and we know that there is a long history of North Korean-Iranian military cooperation.

I hope that  this hearing, as well as a continuing dialogue with the Administration on this issue, we help us explore several key questions that are critical to informing our future policy towards North Korea: Does North Korea pursue a nuclear weapons program as a deterrent, for defensive purposes, or does it pursue a nuclear program as part of a policy intended to reunify the Peninsula by force?  Could the current regime ever conceive of parting with its nuclear capability, or does it view these weapons as essential tools to deter the United States and continue its hold on power?

Getting these answers right will be critical to determining if there is hope for diplomacy or if a different approach is necessary.

It is also important to note the coming to power of a new South Korean administration led by President Park at this difficult time. And I offer her my congratulations on her inauguration last week.  There is no basis for successfully dealing with the North absent a solid foundation for policy rooted in the US-ROK Alliance. With President Park’s inauguration we have an important opportunity to consult and work closely with a close ally to chart out future course in dealing with North Korea.

Finally, we need to consider how recent transitions in other countries in the region – including our close ally Japan, as well as China – may present new opportunities in building a more effective approach to dealing with Pyongyang.

Whatever one’s views on the various policy efforts of the past two decades – what has worked and what has not worked and why – there can be little question that these efforts have failed to end to North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs, failed to reduce the threat posed by North Korea to our allies, and failed to lead to greater security in the region.  Certainly there are no easy answers when it comes to how to be successful when dealing with a regime like North Korea.  But I am hopeful that today’s hearing, and the conversation we start today, may help us to get to a place where, twenty years from now, we can look back at successfully having ended North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and built greater stability and security on the Peninsula and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.