WASHINGTON (CN) – There will be no ‘bloodying’ of North Korea’s nose, state department nominees told a senate committee Thursday, but tougher sanctions on countries refusing to align with the U.S. posture on North Korea continues to be a high priority for the Trump administration.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met Thursday to confirm Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, and Andrea Thompson, nominee for under secretary of state for arms control and international security.
An aggressive U.S. public stance towards Pyongyang, lawmakers acknowledged, places pressure on Thornton and Thompson to continue soothing tensions between Washington and North Korea.
At a U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, the president vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea if the U.S. is “forced to defend itself or its allies.”
The vow was followed by several weeks of tense rhetoric between the president and the North Korean government.
In November, Trump and the regime duked it out on Twitter, with the president derisively calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man,” and the Korean Central News Agency, the nation’s mouthpiece, referring to Trump as a “dotard” before labeling his then-pending trip to Asia as “nothing but a business trip by a warmonger to enrich the monopolies of the U.S. defense industry.”
Curiosity over the intensity of U.S. posture toward North Korea was stoked in January when nominee for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, abruptly withdrew his nomination.
Multiple media outlets reported Cha’s withdrawal was due to his objections over the administration’s consideration of a “bloody nose” approach to North Korea.
Both the State Department and the White House denied the report.
Thornton and Thompson repeated these denials Thursday, telling Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., there is no preemptive or “bloody nose” strategy under consideration.
“Is that your understanding [of the White House ‘s official stance?]” Shaheen asked Thornton.
“That is my understanding, yes, senator,” Thornton said.
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, who attended a closed hearing with administration officials, agreed.
“We were told clearly by the administration people, – as high up as they go – there is no such thing as a ‘bloody nose’ strategy. They’ve never talked about it,” Risch said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis also denied the strategy last month.
Senators appeared reassured by the testimony and David Solimini, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a defense and diplomacy think tank in Washington, D.C., told Courthouse News Thursday he too was confident Thompson and Thornton’s experience is a boon for the state department.
Though his confidence is tempered, he said.
“I am very concerned that more than a year into his term, [Trump] still doesn’t have a full team focused on North Korea,” Solimini said. “[He] still has not chosen an ambassador to South Korea, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed across the border with the North.”
A strike against North Korea would be “unbelievably risky,” he said. “Thankfully we don’t need to start that war. Nuclear deterrence has worked … and it can continue to work if we remain in lock step with our allies.”
Thornton told senators the U.S. “would not accept a nuclear war with North Korea” and acknowledged the U.S. relies on a transparent relationship with China, South Korea and Japan in order to contain threats from Pyongyang.
But the U.S. is still concerned with the China’s willingness to ignore illicit trade flowing in and out of North Korea, Thornton said, since it sustains their nuclear arsenal.
While she didn’t comment on the types of sanctions she would implement against China or other allies who covertly assist North Korea, Thornton said her experience with the Chinese suggests a desire for a productive relationship between the U.S. and the world’s second largest power.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, pressed Thornton.
“If we want to get China to do more and change calibration on how its thinking about North Korea, should we consider naming China a currency manipulator, or fining the banks that facilitate North Korean nuclear proliferation?” Menendez said.
Thornton would not say.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, pressed Thompson for the state department’s position on the Iran Nuclear Agreement, an agreement President Trump calls “one of the worst deals” he has ever seen.
The agreement between the U.S. and Iran in 2015, was a part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It enforces strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear development capabilities in exchange for lighter sanctions.
In January, the president waived some economic sanctions previously imposed against Iran by the U.S. and opted to stay in the deal.
On Thursday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, questioned the president’s willingness to stay a party to the agreement long-term, and asked Thompson what the impact of U.S. withdrawal would look like.
“This week, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats said… Iran is complying with [the joint agreement] and the deal is in America’s national security interest,” Kaine said, noting Tillerson and Mattis both agreed with Coats too.
“If Tillerson and Mattis say they are adhering, I have trust and confidence in both,” Thompson said.
While North Korea is a threat to the U.S., Kaine said, staying in the Iran agreement also helps to deescalate tensions with North Korea.
“The [Iran Agreeemnt] has stretched out the time for Iranians to get a weapon….I’m worried the president suggesting he would step away from Iran when his own key officers say [Iranians are complying]. We risk sending the message: ‘if you get into nuclear deal with us, we won’t comply with it.’”
Solimini told Courthouse News the same.
“Just yesterday the intelligence community confirmed that Iran has kept their side of the bargain. We need to keep our word too. Walking away would be a slap in the face to our closest friends who pledged their support to the deal as well,” he said. “No one likes what Iran does in the Middle East; it’s easier to confront their behavior if they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”
Senators also considered the nomination of Francis Fannon for assistant secretary of energy resources at the state department.
Fannon is a former oil lobbyist for Murphy Oil Corporation. He also served as head of corporate affairs at Australian mining energy conglomerate BHP Billiton.
Though the former lobbyist has promoted the expansion of natural gas extraction in the U.S. – he co-authored a report Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., “Energy and the Environment: The Future of Natural Gas in America” in 2005 and lobbied for the passage of the Energy Policy Act that same year – Fannon told senators Thursday he was opposed to the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline running from the Baltic to Germany.