Time Is Running Out on North Korea

Congress needs to make Pyongyang pay a price for its recklessness.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images
KNS/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea’s nuclear test last month set off alarm bells in capitals around the world — and for good reason. Pyongyang’s recent actions, including a rocket launch in December, are provocative, reckless, and demand a firm response by the international community.

There are no easy answers when dealing with a regime like North Korea. But one thing is certain: There is no longer any time to lose to get our policy right.

Experts believe that North Korea has accumulated between 20 to 40 kilograms of plutonium — enough for as many as six to eight nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has now conducted three nuclear explosive tests. It has developed a modern gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program alongside 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 to our allies and to American forces in region. North Korea’s status as a renegade nuclear power could have additional destabilizing effects if it leads other nations in the region to reconsider their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The danger that North Korea poses goes beyond its nuclear capability. The United States and our allies also face the risk of further conventional military provocation from North Korea that could result in a wider conflict between the North and South. And we cannot ignore the potential for unintended escalation that draws the United States and China into a deadly and dangerous confrontation on the peninsula.

Let’s not forget: North Korea has provided conventional weapons and nuclear technology to despotic regimes around the world, contributing to regional instability and increasingly lethal attacks against democratic governments. North Korea and Iran have a long-standing, cooperative military relationship.

North Korea’s nuclear agenda is clear and our policy response must reflect the serious threat we face. I applaud the Obama administration for its efforts to secure additional sanctions at the United Nations and for introducing new measures to bring international pressure to bear on North Korea to halt its proliferation activities.

These are important steps. But Congress must also do its part to ensure that North Korea pays a price for its continued reckless behavior.

To that end, the Senate recently passed legislation I introduced with Senator Bob Corker and other colleagues on both sides of the aisle to condemn this provocative nuclear test in the strongest possible terms, to call for increased sanctions on North Korea, and to enhance our military posture in the region to safeguard our interests and those of our allies and partners. There should be no question that any provocation by Pyongyang will be met with a firm response.

If we are to escape the familiar cycle of point, counterpoint, and mutual recrimination, the United States and our allies must also take further action to address the deteriorating human rights situation in North Korea. That is why our legislation calls on the administration to press the U.N. Human Rights Council and General Assembly to adopt the recommendations made by the special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. 

The good news is that our friends and allies in the region understand the stakes. With President Park’s inauguration in South Korea, we have a new opportunity to work with our close ally to chart a path forward in dealing with North Korea. The leadership transitions in Japan and China also present new opportunities in building a more effective diplomatic approach to dealing with Pyongyang — allowing us to combine strong and effective sanctions with strong and realistic diplomacy.

China in particular has a critical role to play in helping Pyongyang understand the stakes — and what it must do. Indeed, China itself has a fundamental choice to make: to continue to enable and protect North Korea from the consequences of its misbehavior, as it has done all too often in the past, or to join with the United States and others in the region to bring the sort of sustained pressure to bear that may lead to a change in North Korea’s thinking and action. There are some indicators, like China’s support for Thursday’s action at the Security Council, that there is a serious debate going on in Beijing about whether or not North Korea is a strategic drag for China’s interests in the region, and globally. China’s leaders must make up their own minds about China’s own interests, of course, but it is certainly my hope that China’s new leadership will recognize this, and act to work in partnership with the United States, South Korea, and Japan to bring to an end North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

The Obama administration has been a strong partner in enforcing the sanctions regime, countering North Korea’s provocative behavior, and building an international coalition in opposition to North Korea’s efforts. Now is the time to sustain and grow that pressure. North Korea must understand that its actions have consequences, and that the United States and its allies will not stand idly by as it pursues a dangerous and destabilizing nuclear course.

The alarm bells are ringing. It’s time we heed their call.

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