An often anemic Congress – note the recent failure of health care reform — has been stirred by a rapid-fire series of North Korean provocations to take what looks like decisive action against Kim Jong Un and his regime.
Despite Pyongyang’s public threats, repeated again this month, that further U.S. sanctions are “tantamount to an act of war”, the Senate, in a rare display of near unanimity, passed sanctions legislation on July 27 targeting North Korea, as well as Iran and Russia, by a 97-2 vote.
The DPRK portion of the sanctions was reportedly included at the insistence of the House, which had passed Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce’s robust new North Korea legislation back in May.
CHINA, CHINA, CHINA
This latest legislation, currently awaiting the signature of President Trump, could further cloud prospects for any Chinese—Russian attempts to jump-start multilateral negotiations, which have been stalled for almost a decade. The new sanctions, with their restrictions on companies making use of North Korean labor, could also effectively put the kibosh on Seoul’s possible plans for re-opening the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KID).
Congressional staffers stated on background that even more than the relentless series of missile launches, the latest of which occurred with yet another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch on July 28, the very public inhumane treatment and subsequent death of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier had galvanized their bosses to display a new toughness toward North Korea.
Friday’s missile test
Congressional attention to North Korea, as with many other issues, is often driven partially by constituent concerns. Congressional staff noted in private conversations, however, that the July 4 ICBM launch – even though it was deliberately provocative, timed for America’s Independence Day holiday – was taken in stride by a number of Congressional members. This was because the continued series of Pyongyang’s missile launches this year has somewhat diminished the shock value of any one test.
The reaction, however, was reportedly at a much higher level of concern for those from front-line state delegations whose citizens reported growing anxiety over the expanding North Korean nuclear shadow.
The very public inhumane treatment and subsequent death of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier had galvanized their bosses to display a new toughness
CNN reported on July 26 that “the US believes that North Korea will be able to launch a reliable nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by early 2018, a US official familiar with the latest intelligence assessment confirmed.”
The fact that it was noted that the intercontinental missile test might indicate that Kim Jong Un has now achieved the capability to threaten directly Alaska, and possibly Hawaii, evoked greater concern from those States’ Congressional delegations. Senator Dan Sullivan (R) of Alaska, for example, posted a message immediately after the July 4 missile launch on his Facebook account to his Alaskan constituents, noting that he had placed language in the National Defense Authorization Act passed out of Committee to boost “our missile defense capabilities and keep America safe.”
But if missile defense seems to be the answer, the results of a recent test off the coast of Hawaii are anything but reassuring. Associated Press reported that “the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said it failed to intercept a ballistic missile during a test off Hawaii” on June 21.
The failure came during a test conducted with Japan’s Defense Ministry late Wednesday. The U.S. and Japan are jointly developing the interceptor to shoot down medium-range ballistic missiles. The allies have been investing in technology to counter North Korean missile threats.
Even California officials are moving to introduce measures to counter a perceived North Korean nuclear threat. In a July 25 article titled “Duck and Cover: How North Korea is prompting new efforts to prepare for a nuclear attack” the Los Angeles Times quoted a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department official as stating that “we monitor events all over the world and assess whether there is something that could impact us here. North Korea is clearly one of them.”
The same article mentioned legislative efforts in Hawaii to upgrade that state’s fallout shelters. It also noted a Ventura County, California 253-page nuclear response plan “that deals with issues such as fallout to the management of dead bodies.” Scary stuff, which would certainly grab Congressional attention.
CLOSE TO HOME
While representatives from Alaska, Hawaii and even California are turning increased attention to the North Korean potential nuclear threat in the Pacific, the entire Congress was reportedly riveted by the shocking news in June that a young American citizen had been held incognito by the Pyongyang regime for over a year, without consular access from Sweden, the protective power for the United States in Pyongyang.
His return home to his grieving parents, his death a week later, and his nationally televised funeral impacted especially the Ohio delegation, where Otto’s home was, and the Virginia delegation, where he went to school.
Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who befriended the Warmbier family, has taken a leading role in condemning North Korea’s behavior, and Virginia Congressman Tom Garrett called for a relisting of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism following UVA student Warmbier’s death. Although Members of Congress are almost universally aware of North Korea’s horrendous human rights record, the death of this one young American brought a message home in a way that years of statistics had failed to do.
Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened retaliation against the United States for Washington’s perceived meddling in Korean peninsula affairs and its alleged threat to the existence of the North Korean regime. Propaganda statements, posters, and videos have purportedly claimed the ability to strike the Capitol building in Washington DC with missiles or to use an H-bomb to turn Manhattan into “ashes.”
All of this was previously perceived to be just the usual North Korean bluff and bluster. But Pyongyang has been energized by the reported success of its recent missile and nuclear tests. Kim Jong Un himself attended a public ceremony to heap praise on those involved in the July 4 launch.
The death of this one young American brought a message home in a way that years of statistics had failed to do
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), in warning against further UNSC sanctions as a result of the July 4 test, stated that the successful launch “has fully demonstrated the will and capability of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to annihilate the U.S. in a single blow to the very heart of its mainland in case it fails to act with discretion. It is time for the U.S. to renew its perspective on the DPRK’s strategic position which has reached dazzling heights… However, it is inviting its ultimate doom by resorting to the sanctions and pressure campaign against the DPRK.”
Kim Jong Un has undoubtedly advanced his goal of seeking to assure regime preservation through these nuclear and missile tests in defiance of not only the United States but of almost the entire international community.
One message is loud and clear: don’t mess with North Korea, as the U.S. did with Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi, who were seen as being foolish in abandoning their weapons of massive destruction (WMD). North Korea, a self-proclaimed “nuclear weapons state,” is highly unlikely to ever agree to give up its own strenuously acquired WMD.
By putting at least the states of Alaska and Hawaii potentially in Pyongyang’s nuclear sights, Kim Jong Un has upped the ante considerably and potentially placed further restrictions on U.S. policy options. He seems to have slyly calculated that the Americans would not be willing to sacrifice Anchorage for Seoul nor Honolulu for Tokyo. But his latest provocations have also energized a previously paralyzed Congress.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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