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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
A debate over the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions against North Korea — and China’s role in making them work — broke out between members of Congress and a senior Defense Department official at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.
It was the latest illustration of an ongoing disagreement between the Trump administration and many members of Congress, from both political parties, over how much pressure Washington should be putting on Pyongyang in order to achieve the elusive goal of denuclearization.
The Trump administration has been accused by some of holding back on sanctions enforcement, military drills, and criticism of human rights as a way to entice North Korea back to the negotiating table.
The two countries’ leaders — or their envoys — have not met face-to-face for months.
On the question of sanctions enforcement, the policy debate seemed to be on full display in the committee room on Tuesday.
In joint written testimony submitted to the House Armed Services Committee, John C. Rood, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary for Policy, and Lt. Gen. David W. Allvin, the Director for Strategy, Plans and Policy at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the U.S. continues “to call upon China to convey our expectation that it upholds it obligations under UN Security Council resolutions.”
But during their live testimony, lawmakers were told instead that China, although it could be doing more, had already assisted the U.S. by enforcing UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against the DPRK.
“China has helped, in the sense that they do enforce the UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea,” said Rood, responding to a lawmaker’s question.
“However, we are concerned that enforcement has not been at times stronger. It’s not been consistent,” he said. “It’s fair to say this is an ongoing area of concern that we have about the performance of the Chinese government in this regard.”
“And so, from our point of view, we would like to see China step up and do much more in that area.”
Republicans and Democrats appeared to be skeptical about painting China as a do-gooder when it comes to sanctions enforcement.
“The United Nations has documented North Korea’s efforts to evade sanctions, including ship-to-ship transfers of oil and coal, in the waters off China and Russia’s coast,” said Representative Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana.
He asked what the U.S. is doing about it.
Ship-to-ship transfers are one of the DPRK’s well-documented methods of sanctions evasion, in which boats meet on the open water, turn off their location transmitters, and illegally buy and sell sanctioned goods.
Representative Vicki Hartzler, a Republican from Missouri, said that “China is such a key” to economic sanctions. She called them “our main lever” against Pyongyang right now.
“How much are they helping with that, or how much are they undermining these sanctions?” she asked. “Are they currently reaching out to North Korea, and trying to get them to come to the bargaining table?”
Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, sounded deeply unconvinced of Rood’s stance.
“We have not deterred North Korea at all,” she said. “They have continued to test missiles and build the equivalent of ICBMs, and continue to have a stockpile.”
ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles, are designed to travel thousands of miles. In theory, one could be launched from North Korea and hit an American city — a major concern for U.S. lawmakers.
“We aren’t getting them to do anything to reduce that,” Speier continued. “Isn’t that supposed to be part of our strategy?”
“I share the objective,” said Rood. “What I was merely trying to address is that we do try to deter aggression. It is a harder thing to deter the production or the pursuit of those capabilities.”
“But certainly we are trying to do that through negotiations,” he said. “And the President has been very clear in his desire to see a negotiated outcome for those things.”
“A maximum pressure campaign undergirds this, because without that pressure, without that element of policy to create pressure in North Korea and get them to the negotiating table, we don’t think that a negotiated outcome is feasible,” Rood added.
Speier pushed back.
“And what is the pressure we have imposed on North Korea?” she said. “Besides giving them the world stage on which to be recognized?”
Rood cited UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. Speier rebutted that China “is not complying” with them.
“We have seen China enforce the sanctions,” said Rood. “I think perhaps we’d like to see them do a better job of enforcing those, as their performance has been inconsistent.”
One former State Department official told NK News that the administration’s line on China at Tuesday’s hearing was overly generous.
“I can understand trying to encourage [China] to cooperate further in enforcing international and UNSC-mandated sanctions on North Korea, but we also need to recognize reality,” said Evans Revere, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Revere cited ship-to-ship transfers of oil and cross-border trade as two examples of how North Korea’s economy is still propped up by the country.
“Beijing, by its own admission, has not yet complied with the December 22, 2019 UN deadline to send North Koreans workers home. Those workers are a critical source of hard currency for the Pyongyang regime,” Revere said. “There are also credible reports that China continues to accept new North Korean workers.”
“Meanwhile, China, with support from Russia, made a major effort in the UN Security Council to ease sanctions on North Korea — an effort that was blocked thanks to a strong U.S. intervention.”
“The days of active China-U.S. cooperation in pressuring North Korea are probably over,” Revere added.
On that point, responding to a lawmaker’s question, the DOD’s Rood made a similar concession: “It’s always been elusive to get China more involved.”