Merkley, back from S. Korea, urges stronger sanctions, diplomacy

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Subcommittee on East Asia, on Friday called for stronger sanctions and focused diplomacy to address the crisis with North Korea.

Merkley returned late Thursday night from a weeklong trip to South Korea, Japan and China with a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers, who traveled to Asia as tensions between North Korea and the global community continue to rise.

“We all share the goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula, but after extensive discussions with key counterparts in the region, I am concerned that the Trump administration does not have a workable plan to get there,” Merkley said.

“It is clear from our meetings that Kim Jong-un sees North Korea’s nuclear weapon program as essential for the survival of his regime. He is determined to keep those weapons as a deterrent to prevent either a broad military attack or a targeted attack designed for regime change, and to justify to his population their hardships. Talk of ‘fire and fury’ and threats of attacks serve to strengthen that resolve.

“It should be clear, in fact, that there is no purely military solution to this challenge. Not only does Kim Jong-un already have several dozen nuclear weapons which could be utilized in response to an attack, but he also has a huge amount of conventional artillery that could quickly destroy Seoul, home to 25 million people and thousands of Americans.

“Nor will economic pressure convince Kim Jong-un to give up the weapons he sees as vital to his survival. China has the economic leverage to bring North Korea to its knees, but is unwilling to do so because it does not want to trigger a collapse of the North Korean government — potentially destroying North Korea as a valued buffer from the West, and generating hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into China.

“Thus, while the long-term goal should remain the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, in the near-term the U.S. must shift gears. We must focus on securing a much a more attainable freeze in North Korea’s missile and warhead testing program, along with initiating intensive negotiations to stop other aspects of North Korea’s nuclear program. It is critical that the Trump administration present Congress and the American people with a plan of diplomacy and sanctions to accomplish that objective.”

Merkley emphasized the central role China plays in pressuring North Korea. China accounts for 92 percent of North Korea’s trade across a land border at the Chinese city of Dandong. Merkley’s group became the first Congressional delegation to visit that border crossing on Wednesday, Aug. 23, when they met with Chinese officials and toured the customs facility that controls traffic across the lone bridge connecting the two countries.

“We are grateful for China’s support of new United Nations sanctions, and hope that China will be vigilant in implementing them,” Merkley said. “But it is evident from discussions across the region that we will need China to do more. China has the capacity to — and should have the interest in — bringing North Korea to the table, and they have the tools to do so in coordination with the rest of the international community.”

Merkley outlined a number of steps that China could take to increase the pressure on North Korea without threatening the regime’s collapse, which China rejects. Merkley noted that with additional sanctions, China could reduce the flow of oil, other fuels, and luxury goods into North Korea.

China also could take steps to protect incoming North Korean refugees — which China is obligated to do under the United Nations Refugee Convention — rather than aggressively repatriating them, as they currently are doing. Merkley also observed that tens of thousands of North Koreans work abroad under contracts that send their wages back to the government, and suggested that host nations could interrupt the flow of hard currency to the North Korean government by sending those workers home. 

“Our military in the region is exceptional and clearly well-prepared for any contingency, but the reality of war on the Korean peninsula could be more dire than anything since World War II,” Merkley said. “As the commanders recognize better than anyone, this situation requires an immediate global effort to work toward a peaceful solution. That means setting the right short-term objectives, and engaging in careful diplomacy. 

Merkley traveled with a delegation of lawmakers, led by U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and including Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY-12.), and Representative Ann Wagner (R-MO-02).

The delegation in South Korea, Japan and China met with senior government officials, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The lawmakers were briefed by American diplomats and military commanders in the region, and met with a number of North Korean defectors.

The delegation also visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea. Merkley was thrilled to have Oregonian Ian Goetsch, a private from Dayville in Grant County who is serving at Camp Bonifas, deliver the briefing to the delegation in the joint security area of the DMZ.  Merkley also met with other Oregonians serving in the U.S. military and at diplomatic stations in the region.

The trip follows a series of town halls Merkley hosted, during which Oregonians across the state expressed fear about the threat of North Korea. They were concerned about the potential for unintended escalation without a deliberate and thoughtful strategy to protect the United States and its allies.

“We have rock-solid alliances with both Japan and South Korea, a phenomenal military capability that is closely integrated with our allies, and a shared interest with China in addressing this threat,” Merkley said. “I’m confident that there is a path forward if we manage the diplomacy well.”

Merkley in December was tapped to serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which plays a critical role in the development of the United States’ foreign policy.