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Senators Seek to Follow White House Action on North Korea

Lawmakers hope to ratchet up economic pressure on Pyongyang

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner is one of a handful of lawmakers pushing sanctions legislation on North Korea. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner is one of a handful of lawmakers pushing sanctions legislation on North Korea. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senators from both sides of the aisle are hoping to move quickly on legislation that would put further economic pressure on North Korea in the aftermath of the country’s first successful launch of a long-range ballistic missile.

The bills, which would, among other things, impose additional economic sanctions on financial institutions that do business with Pyongyang, are the latest in a line of major foreign policy matters before the chamber in the early tenure of a presidency that largely lacks the traditional diplomatic experience of past administrations.

They also come as the White House faces escalating questions over the Trump campaign’s relationship during last year’s elections with Russia, a country that continues to engage in relations with North Korea.

For its part, the Trump administration is exerting more pressure on key international allies, including China, in an attempt to negotiate a peaceful end to North Korea’s nuclear program, a strategy that follows the example of the prior three U.S. presidents.

Still, Republican lawmakers hope the White House takes further action.

“It’s got to do more,” Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado said last week. “It has to ratchet up the pressure and that’s what I’ll be leading in the Senate.”

Gardner, who has called on the administration to prioritize the growing North Korean threat, is one of a handful of members who are pushing legislation on the matter. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker is also working on a bill that would restrict tourism to the country. 

“Not only does it put our citizens in jeopardy and our government in a very precarious situation when individuals are detained, but it also serves as a source of revenue for a regime that brutally abuses its own people,” the Tennessee Republican said in a statement.

And Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., are crafting legislation that would prohibit entities that do business with North Korea from accessing the U.S. financial system. It is modeled after prior Iran sanctions bills passed in 2010 and 2012. 

It is unclear when the Senate could move on a measure. Republicans are expected to try to advance their legislation to overhaul the U.S. health insurance system before the upcoming recess. After the recess, Congress must turn its attention to funding the government beyond the end of fiscal 2017 (Sept. 30), among other approaching deadlines.

The strategy of tightening North Korea’s access to the international community in the hopes of forcing the authoritarian government to begin discussions with global leaders over its nuclear program is not novel. The past three administrations largely followed this pattern.

But lawmakers still believe the plan could be successful.

“North Korea is far from being sanctioned out,” Gardner said. “This has got to be an all-fronts pressure point on North Korea that leads to peaceful denuclearization.”

The China connection

Central to that strategy will be China, a country that has operated as somewhat of a middleman between North Korea and the United States and its allies in the region. But there is growing concern among both Congress and the White House that China is not exerting the kind of pressure on Pyongyang that is necessary.

“It is a complete shirking of their responsibility when they say they don’t have leverage, and if China wants to be a responsible global power, it is time for them to step up to the plate and be part of the denuclearization effort,” Gardner said.

Two of the bills expected to be filed in the coming weeks will specifically target Chinese financial institutions that do business with North Korea. 

President Donald Trump, despite vowing to label China a currency manipulator on the campaign trail, had withheld any strong criticism in his early interactions with the country. But last month, the White House announced it would impose additional sanctions on Chinese entities that conduct business with North Korea, a move that earned praise from lawmakers.

“It is clear that China still is not doing enough, and I applaud the Trump administration for recently targeting Chinese entities who are … helping prop up the economy of a rogue, brutal regime,” Corker said in a statement last week.

Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last week, where administration officials said the two had “very direct discussions” about North Korea, according to a press pool report.

“I appreciate the things that you have done relevant to the very substantial problem that we all face in North Korea — a problem that something has to be done about,” Trump said in remarks before the meeting. “As far as North Korea is concerned, we will have, eventually, success. It may take longer than I’d like. It may take longer than you’d like. But there will be success in the end, one way or the other.”

The comments are in stark contrast to harsh critiques from Trump sent days earlier regarding China’s continued trade with Pyongyang.

“Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!” he tweeted on July 5.

The Trump administration is not alone in its calls for additional support from the international community to address the growing threat posed by North Korea.

During a separate meeting last week, Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe agreed that the “international community must address North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs quickly and decisively,” according to a read-out provided by the White House.

During a press conference at the White House last month with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump also declared an end to “the era of strategic patience” over North Korea’s nuclear program.

John T. Bennett contributed to this report. This post was updated to clarify which bill Sens. Toomey and Van Hollen were basing their new legislation on.