President Donald Trump’s all-but-certain acquittal in his impending Senate impeachment trial will likely embolden him in all sorts of ways, some more frightening than others. One deal he will be sorely tempted to make, after three years of erratic and mostly unproductive diplomacy, is to accommodate his “friend” Kim Jong-un and ease sanctions on North Korea. It will be up to the US Congress to stop him.
“If I weren’t president, you’d be at war with North Korea,” Trump said in September. It’s certainly true that the US and North Korea aren’t trading blows across the DMZ. It’s demonstrably false that, Trump’s extravagant claim notwithstanding, “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” This is despite three meetings with Kim, a couple of “beautiful” letters, the US and South Korean suspension of various military exercises and the muting of criticism of the North’s abominable human rights record.
If anything, North Korea has become a more formidable adversary since Trump took office. As a recent United Nations report makes clear, it has “continued to enhance its nuclear and missile programs.” In Trump’s first year in office, it conducted numerous intercontinental and medium-range ballistic missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. (Also recall that Kim had his half brother assassinated in Malaysia with a VX nerve agent drawn from the world’s third biggest chemical weapons stockpile.) Even after Kim said in April 2018 that tests of nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles were no longer necessary, North Korea has violated UN sanctions by launching short-range missile and stockpiling more fissile material. This year’s 20 missile launches will almost match its record 24 launches in 2016.
Less notorious but no less disturbing have been North Korea’s increasingly aggressive cyberattacks. One brazen and sophisticated hack took over the infrastructure for ATMs and enabled North Korean agents in 20 countries to make 10,000 cash withdrawals over the course of five hours. Since 2017, banks from Chile to Kuwait have reported the regime’s cybertheft of tens of millions of dollars, along with thwarted attempts involving even bigger sums. Its hackers also filched more than $150 million from various cryptocurrencies circulating in South Korea, Slovenia, India, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.
Sadly, Trump has fractured what used to be a fairly united global front against such misdeeds and provocations. His downplaying of North Korea’s short-range missile launches, for instance, irked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His willingness to use the US military presence in Japan and South Korea as leverage in trade negotiations has shaken the trust of allies, as have his extortionate demands for host nation support that, in the case of South Korea, actually exceed the cost of keeping US forces there. His trade war with China, whatever its other mixed benefits, has undermined China’s willingness to work with the US to pressure its neighbor. At the UN, a combination of US high-handedness and neglect has badly damaged the existing UN sanctions regime, which both Russia and China are trying hard to loosen.
To be sure, Trump deserves credit for seeking to end the stalemate that has prevailed on the Korean Peninsula. But his impulsiveness, lack of vision and chaotic management style have nullified his summitry’s positive impact, leaving dashed expectations on the part of North Korea and no clear path forward for the US.
Earlier this month North Korea signaled a potential return to brinkmanship, threatening the unchecked pursuit of its nuclear and missile programs unless the US agrees to ease sanctions. That possibility casts a shadow over Trump’s reelection campaign, depriving him of a prized talking point.
The US Congress is rightly alarmed over the current impasse and Trump’s possible willingness to take whatever deal he can get. In the National Defense Authorization Act sent to the White House for signature last week, a bipartisan group of senators added a raft of new sanctions on North Korea. They need to go further than that, and there’s a model for doing so: The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which gave Congress the ability to review the agreement, required the president to regularly certify Iran’s compliance, limited his ability to waive sanctions and expedited the process for reimposing statutory sanctions in the event of a breach. The Senate passed it 98-1; the House, 400-25.
Republican senators who vote to acquit Trump on impeachment will have to live with the consequences of their actions. Asserting Congress’ oversight over any North Korean deal -- and more broadly, over this administration’s erratic foreign policy -- could at least help to make those consequences less dire for the rest of the world.
James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.