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Gardner Sees ‘Refreshing’ New Focus on North Korea

Senators will be briefed on North Korea threat at the White House Wednesday

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner has been a leading voice in the Republican caucus on North Korea since he entered the Senate in 2015 after serving two terms in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner has been a leading voice in the Republican caucus on North Korea since he entered the Senate in 2015 after serving two terms in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators will be bused to the White House on Wednesday for a briefing on North Korea, and one Republican senator says attention on the threat is long overdue.

Sen. Cory Gardner has been among the lawmakers calling on the Trump administration to prioritize addressing the threat of North Korea launching nuclear weapons, and the Colorado Republican said it is “refreshing” to see some action.

“I do think that people need to pay more attention to North Korea,” Gardner said. “And I do think this isn’t a time to say, ‘Yes, are you going to strike or are you not going to strike?’ There are so many more things that we can do, that we ought to utilize, that are already in law.”

A new era

The all-Senate briefing comes amid escalating tensions between Pyongyang and the U.S. 

While in South Korea last week, Vice President Mike Pence said the era of the previous administration’s “strategic patience” with North Korea was over. Senators are hoping to hear more about what exactly that means for President Donald Trump’s strategy moving forward. Trump is expected to participate in Wednesday’s briefing, said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.

“I think the White House has to lay out a roadmap of what maximum pressure means to our new policy, new direction in North Korea,” Gardner said in an interview in his Senate office Tuesday. “I think tomorrow we’ll hear an outline of maximum pressure, actions and activities that will result in China taking a more affirmative posture towards the regime and how we’re going to strengthen our relationship between Japan and South Korea.”

Gardner has been a leading voice in the GOP caucus on North Korea since he entered the Senate in 2015 after serving two terms in the House. When he joined the Foreign Relations Committee and the opportunity eventually arose to chair a subcommittee, he chose the panel on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy.

“I looked at the committees and thought, ‘You know, the one that is going to matter the most, I believe, over the next 40 years is Asia,’” Gardner said.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Gardner has emerged as the “go-to person” on North Korea. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, also a Republican panel member, said, “People trust [Gardner’s] instincts on this.”

Gardner said he wanted to focus on North Korea when he took over as subcommittee chairman. He brought in experts from the Congressional Research Service to brief him and his staff when he was still in the temporary freshman office in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and said they quickly started working on sanctions legislation.

“At the time people were just like, ‘Oh hey, Cory, this is great but we got our hands full over here,’” Gardner recalled. “And then, lo and behold, a few nuclear bombs detonated by North Korea, and our sanctions act was passed 96 to nothing in a bipartisan fashion.”

Bipartisan approach

Gardner teamed up with New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, to craft an amendment to a House North Korea sanctions bill, which was signed into law last year. The bill included the first congressionally imposed sanctions on the country.

Menendez said they decided to work together after discovering at a hearing that they both had similar concerns about the country. The New Jersey Democrat brought his years of expertise from working on sanctions legislation, and relayed a similar experience of sounding the alarm about Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

“Eventually, when Iran started breaking out into some significant abilities, the world caught up with what I was saying years ago,” Menendez said. “And I think the same is true for Sen. Gardner who has been focused on this North Korea issue. We both saw this escalating ability of the North Korean regime to actually produce greater weaponry … at an alarming pace.”

While Gardner noted that there is bipartisan support for focusing on North Korea and praised Menenedez for his work on the issue, some Democrats have cautioned against Trump rushing to military action in the region.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, the top Democrat on the East Asia subcommittee, spoke out earlier this month following statements by both Trump and Pyongyang about the possibility of pre-emptive strikes.

“President Trump should think long and hard about the potentially catastrophic consequences of illegally rushing into a so-called ‘preventive war’ with North Korea,” the Massachusetts senator said on April 14. “There is no path to a non-nuclear North Korea without diplomacy.”

The Chinese factor

Both Markey and Gardner believe China is key to addressing the North Korean nuclear threat, since the Chinese have influence over the country’s economy.

“What we have to realize is just getting China to do more is so critical,” Gardner said. “The road to peaceful denuclearization of North Korea goes directly through Beijing.”

Both Gardner and Menendez said the administration can use the tools in their sanctions legislation to penalize and pressure Chinese entities to stop working with North Korea. The senators hope to hear more about how the administration is pushing China to step up.

In a January op-ed for CNN, Gardner encouraged Trump to work with Congress on North Korea. He said he’s kept in contact with the administration — speaking with Pence Tuesday morning about his trip to Asia, and participating in a classified call on North Korea with national security adviser H.R. McMaster over the recent recess. He’s also meeting with Asian experts at the National Security Council later this week.

But Menendez said the administration needs to do more to consult with lawmakers, especially members of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“We haven’t seen the engagement with the administration at a level we would hope to see,” he said.

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