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Senior Republicans on Tuesday used North Korea’s latest nuclear test to attack President Barack Obama’s foreign policies and his reported plans to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“The Obama administration must replace its failed North Korea policy with one that is energetic, creative and focused on crippling the Kim regime’s military capabilities through stringent sanctions that tackle its illicit activities and cuts off its flow of hard currency,” California’s Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a written statement, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “Otherwise, the grave North Korean threat to the region and the United States will only grow.”
After North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006, Democratic lawmakers urged President George W. Bush to open direct talks with Pyongyang. In May 2009, Republicans used North Korea’s second test as ammunition for their drive to increase funding and support for a worldwide anti-missile defense system.
This time, Republican criticism of the president has been particularly sharp and partisan. California Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, cited Pyongyang’s nuclear test as a reason to dissuade Obama from any new plan to make further cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which some media reports had suggested could come in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
“On the same day the president of the United States plans to announce further reduction in U.S. nuclear weapons, we see another hostile regime unimpressed by his example,” McKeon said in a statement.
Obama did not announce any specific target in his speech Tuesday night, but he did make it clear that reductions in the size of the arsenal would be considered.
“We will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands — because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead,” Obama said, adding that the United States also needed to strengthen its missile defense.
Obama on Tuesday issued a statement calling the test “highly provocative.”
In his speech, he added, “Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”
The nuclear test, North Korea’s third, occurred late Monday night. Seismic monitoring agencies recorded a magnitude between 4.9 and 5.2, which is bigger than the seismic shocks produced by North Korea’s previous blast in 2006 and 2009.
It was the first nuclear test carried out under the younger Kim, who appears to be following his father’s footsteps in ignoring sanctions and international criticism and using nuclear weapons tests to keep foes at a distance. The latest test also drew criticism from China, North Korea’s closest ally.
“Today’s test is another reminder of years of failed policies to prevent North Korea’s nuclear programs and proliferation,” House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in a statement. “The key to stemming North Korea’s cycle of provocation is to seriously engage the Chinese in exercising leverage over their neighbor. We need a completely new approach to dealing with this growing national security threat.”
But Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey, a leader on nonproliferation issues, argued that Obama’s plan to downsize the U.S. nuclear arsenal would help isolate North Korea.
“North Korea’s brazen nuclear weapons test will only help to highlight President Obama’s leadership to reduce our nuclear weapons stockpile,” Markey said. “Slashing America’s nuclear weapons arsenal will give our country the continuing moral authority to push back against the rogue nations and superpowers that want to build more nuclear weapons.”
In the Senate, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, condemned the nuclear tests as “provocative and irresponsible” and said he planned to introduce legislation that would “call upon the international community to take action so that North Korea pays a price for its continued reckless behavior.”
Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, renewed her call for lawmakers to support her effort to reinstate North Korea on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The Bush administration removed North Korea from the list in October 2008, in response to Pyongyang’s decision to allow inspections of its nuclear program.
“The 2008 delisting of North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism was a mistake and a premature decision,” she said in a written statement.
In contrast to his Republican colleagues, Florida’s Marco Rubio, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, issued a more temperate statement in reaction to Pyongyang’s nuclear test.
“It is my hope that the Foreign Relations Committee holds a series of hearings as soon as possible to review the Administration’s policies concerning peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and the Asia Pacific in general,” he said.
Rubio, delivered the GOP rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening and is seen by many in his party as a promising candidate for the presidency in 2016, said the president, Secretary of State John Kerry and his fellow lawmakers “must make it clear that future conduct of this nature is unacceptable.”