House Hears Dire Warnings on Nukes in North Korea

The text of this North Korean propaganda poster says, “We will blast the U.S. from the face of the earth!” Hand painted by Yang Byongsu, this reproduction of a printed poster is part of a collection at the University of California, San Diego.

WASHINGTON (CN) – The House Foreign Affairs Committee argued Tuesday over what steps the Trump administration could take to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“It’s clear that very soon North Korea will be able to target all 50 states, and our allies,” said committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.

At a roughly two-hour hearing this morning, experts warned the committee that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name, is three years away from having an intercontinental ballistic missile – designed to deliver a nuclear warhead – that is capable of reaching the United States.

North Korea has been quite public about ratcheting up its efforts, and Victor Cha with the Center for Strategic and International Studies said there is a clear objective behind this weapons drive: “to field a modern nuclear force that has the proven ability to threaten first U.S. territories in the Pacific – including Guam and Hawaii – then the achievement of a capability to reach the U.S. homeland, starting with the West Coast.”

North Korea’s ultimate ambition is the ability to hit the nation’s capital, he added.

The House heard that North Korean leader Kim Jung Un has the intent and a proven track record of creating nuclear mischief elsewhere, particularly in its dealings with Iran and Syria.

“We know that North Korea has proliferated ballistic missiles to Iran, Syria, and other nations, and secretly built a nuclear reactor in a location in Syria that has since fallen under the control of ISIS,” Anthony Ruggiero with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said.

“Pyongyang is likely to proliferate any technology it develops to other problematic regimes, such as Iran,” he added.

The Congressional Research Service meanwhile reported a year ago that “there is no evidence that Iran and North Korea have engaged in nuclear-related trade or cooperation with each other.”

Syria and North Korea, on the other hand, have.

In 2007, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria that the U.S. and Israel believed the North Koreans had helped Syria build, potentially as part of a broader Syrian nuclear weapons program – allegations that Syria has denied.

The U.S. intelligence community assigned “low confidence” to its assessment that the reactor was intended to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, the report says.

A 2015 Institute for Science and International Security report that Ruggiero cited in his testimony notes that the destroyed reactor site is now under the control of the Islamic State group.

The Islamic State is “possibly conducting excavation activities” at the destroyed site, but its intentions remain unknown, and Syria’s supply of uranium “is not believed to be at the reactor site or in the hands of ISIL,” the report states, using a common abbreviation for the Islamic State group.

Syria’s uranium supply would need further enrichment, but could produce three to five nuclear weapons, according to the report.

One themes that underscored Tuesday hearing was the failure of previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, to adequately mitigate North Korea’s advancing weapons program in its 25-year pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The committee also focused on the need of a nuclear-weapons program to keep Kim in power.

The subtext of the latter hinted at regime change, minus a stark shift in relations between the United States and North Korea that results in the North’s nuclear disarmament.

In the estimation of Georgetown University professor Robert Gallucci, diplomacy and sanctions have not been a winning strategy. Relying on China to allow tougher sanctions to work won’t work either, he warned.

“North Korea is not Iran,” the professor’s written testimony says. “It is not integrated into the world economy in a way that makes it vulnerable to sanctions, and its leader was not elected by the people, so his authority and longevity does not turn on delivering prosperity to them.”

On top of that, more severe sanctions could destabilize the regime, something that China would never tolerate, Gallucci added.

Attempting to freeze the program, as the Obama administration did with Iran, won’t work either he said.

“A freeze legitimizes the program,” Gallucci said during testimony.

This would spur objections by Japan and South Korea, and possible incentivize these countries to pursue nuclear ambitions of their own.

“The North Koreans see only two ways to insure against U.S. initiated regime change,” Gallucci said, “nuclear weapons that threaten the U.S. homeland, or a political settlement with the U.S. that genuinely ends hostile relations between us and them.”

Gallucci, along with Sue Mi Terry, director of the Bower Group Asia, believe nuclear disarmament is the only acceptable outcome. Both said efforts to disarm North Korea, if pursued through tougher sanctions and diplomacy, should be tied to the country’s human-rights abuses through a significant increase in international pressure.

That could include action in the International Criminal Court.

“As was the case with Apartheid-era South Africa, whose global isolation was an important factor in changing its system of government,” Terry said in written testimony, “a campaign of diplomatic actions waged internationally, beginning with Washington, will challenge the Kim Jong-un regime’s legitimacy based on its failure to provide for the needs of the people.”

To break the information barrier, Terry also suggested increasing support for radio broadcasts and working with tech companies like Google and Facebook. These efforts should be tailored to help North Koreans organize and mobilize, she said.

Any information operation should also target elites in the North, she noted. Terry said there has been an uptick in elite defections to the South in the past year as disillusionment with the regime grows.

“We need to make it clear to the elites that economic opportunity and long-term prospects for survival will be denied to them and the country as long as Kim holds onto the nuclear arsenal,” she said.