Congress

Engel promises tough oversight of Trump's North Korea nuclear talks

House Democrats are ready for a deal, but only if it offers permanent denuclearization

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., participates in the House Democrats’ news conference on the “NATO Support Act” before its consideration on the House floor on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Trump administration must be more transparent about its North Korea policy if it wants congressional support for implementing any nuclear agreement that could come out of this week’s summit in Hanoi, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Monday.

Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., said House Democrats are ready to be constructive partners in implementing a possible U.S.-North Korea nuclear deal, but only if it offers a credible path toward Pyongyang’s permanent denuclearization.

At this point, the Trump administration’s North Korea policies, which Engel characterized as scattershot, hollow and inscrutable, do not engender much confidence, he said.

“Democrats aren’t going to stand in the way of a real opportunity” for a lasting peace with North Korea, regardless of whether it is President Donald Trump doing the negotiating, Engel told an audience at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “So far, what we’ve gotten from the administration has not been credible, and it certainly has not been transparent.”

Trump will meet for the second time with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi on Wednesday. Unlike the hoopla surrounding the duo’s first summit last summer in Singapore, the Trump administration this time is tempering expectations for what might come out of the meeting.

According to administration officials, U.S. goals from the second summit include reaching a shared understanding of what “denuclearization” means, developing a roadmap and timeline for future nuclear disarmament steps and getting a total freeze on all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons work, including the production of enriched uranium and plutonium needed to fuel a warhead.

Experts agree that those are more realistic goals than the administration’s 2018 hopes of reaching a sweeping agreement that would see Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons before Trump’s first term was over. Still, even the new goals are fairly ambitious, given North Korea’s record of reneging on agreements and the potential that Trump in a one-on-one meeting with Kim would agree to concessions his subordinates would otherwise oppose.

For example, after his private meeting in Singapore with Kim, Trump’s declaration of a halt to major U.S. military exercises with South Korea came as a surprise to the Pentagon and to Seoul.

“The president’s penchant for one-on-one personal diplomacy presents real risk to the national interest,” Tom Donilon, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, now a senior fellow with the Belfer Center, said in a statement. “Congress and senior administration officials still do not have a complete understanding of what Trump and Kim discussed at Singapore. Given President Trump’s serious information and experiential deficit . . . the North Koreans would readily exploit a free-wheeling one-on-one session.”

Democrats demand transparency

Getting more clarity about what happened in Singapore as well as what occurs in Hanoi “will be at the top of the list” for the Foreign Affairs Committee’s work in the 116th Congress, Engel said. He said that list also will include getting information on the current status of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

“I think Congress, and the House in particular, has its biggest role to play in conducting rigorous oversight on all matters pertaining to North Korea,” Engel said. “The administration may have gotten away with circumventing Congress with the Republican majority in the House, but we as a new Democratic majority will simply not stand for it.”

Last week Engel, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., co-signed a letter to Trump expressing their alarm with the “growing disconnect” between “the administration’s statements about Kim Jong Un’s actions, commitments, and intentions” and the official U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that North Korea is continuing its nuclear weapons work.

The three chairmen said it was “unacceptable” that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had still not briefed Congress on what took place at the Singapore summit or that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last fall notified Congress that lawmakers’ access to intelligence about North Korea’s conventional and nuclear weapons program would be sharply curtailed.

“On the eve of the second summit, we once again insist that you lift the access restrictions, which severely hamper Congress’ ability to evaluate the threat posed by North Korea,” Engel, Smith and Schiff wrote.

“It’s time that we exercise our prerogatives . . . We do have legislative tools at our disposal,” Engel said on Monday, without elaborating on what those tools were.

Engel said he was particularly concerned about “the sequencing of sanctions relief,” referring to the timeline by which the United States and the international community would lift various sanctions on North Korea in exchange for nuclear disarmament actions.

In a Sunday interview with CNN, Pompeo left the door open to North Korea receiving some initial sanctions relief, though he underlined that the toughest sanctions — legally enshrined through multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions — would remain in place until there is verifiable and complete denuclearization.

“There are other things we could do — exchanges of people, lots of other ways that North Korea is sanctioned today that if we get a substantial step and move forward we could certainly provide an outlet which would demonstrate our commitment to the process as well,” Pompeo said.

Engel said he was open to “altering our sanctions” if North Korea really does change its behavior but that the United States should not be lifting human rights sanctions on Pyongyang if there is no improvement in that area.

“We shouldn’t lift sanctions in response to hollow gestures,” Engel said. “Empty gestures may be enough for this president, but they won’t fool me.”

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