Portman Presses Administration on Designating North Korea a State Sponsor of Terrorism

Press Release

Date: July 25, 2017
Location: Washington, DC

During a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia hearing on Engagement Policy with North Korea, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) questioned administration officials on the steps the United States is taking to hold North Korea accountable for its dangerous and destabilizing behavior, including re-designating it a state sponsor of terrorism. Portman, who recently introduced legislation to tighten the United States' economic embargo on North Korea and its enablers, also discussed the importance of working with China and the international community to hold North Korea accountable.

Senator Portman: "Thank you, Mr. Chairman. As Senator Markey has described, we have big challenges with North Korea, and over the period of the last couple of decades a few different administrations have tried different things which haven't worked. I wanted to talk for a moment, if I could, about the possibility of re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. I raise this because, as you recall, the designation was actually removed as part of a negotiation. My understanding is that the North Koreans did not keep their end of the bargain on that negotiation.

"I know that you're currently pursuing a strategy of "maximum pressure,' as it's called, against the regime, and I just wonder why this isn't one of the things that you're looking at… The Bush administration's removal of the regime from the list in 2008 was based upon an agreement by North Korea to disable its plutonium factory and for the complete and correct declaration of its nuclear programs. None of those things happened. Today, we understand that plutonium production continues at Yongbyon and it's an important part of the North Korean nuclear program. If I'm wrong about that, I'd like to hear from you, Ms. Thornton. We're nowhere near having a complete understanding of their nuclear program, of course.

"So the removal from the list in 2008 was closely linked to negotiating limitations on the program and changes in international behavior by the regime, and it never happened. Director Coats has now outlined in his Worldwide Threat Assessment--just out a couple of months ago--that North Korea's record of sharing dangerous nuclear and missile technology with state sponsors of terrorism, including Iran and Syria, continues to pose a serious threat--not just to the U.S.--but to the security environment in East Asia and elsewhere. So sharing dangerous nuclear weapon technology with Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism, should seem to be an important link to terrorism. In addition, the regime has built a long record, of course, of kidnapping and murder. Its treatment of Japanese nationals was an important part of its designation previously. Unfortunately, they've made a habit now of detaining Americans. And as you know, one of my constituents, Otto Warmbier, was one of those who was detained. And that detention, in essence, turned into a death sentence for him. Improperly detained. My question to you would be whether you all are weighing the re-designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and what the status of that decision-making is? And if you're not doing that, why aren't you doing that?

Honorable Susan A. Thornton: "Thank you, Senator, very much for that question. Of course let me just start by saying that our hearts really do go out to the family of Otto Warmbier. It was reprehensible, a tragedy, and something no one should have to go through. I certainly appreciate the sentiment behind your question and I think we all are very concerned about humanitarian conditions inside North Korea and about actions by the regime that are very much outside the bounds of any kind of responsible state actor. I think on the issue of the state sponsors of terrorism, we are reviewing that issue right now. It is an issue that the Secretary has taken an interest in. There are a lot of technical and legal aspects to it, so I can't tell you with great specificity where we are with the review right now, but we are looking at the issue of designation, and I could give you information perhaps at a later date."

Portman: "Well, I appreciate that information, but I would like to ask that you get back to me. And I assume the Chairman and Ranking Member will be interested as well into what the thinking is and what the considerations are. You said it's a highly technical decision. I know you have to meet certain requirements. Again, providing missile technology to countries that we consider some of the top state sponsors of terrorism would seem to be a link. And then, of course, how they treated--not just other countries' citizens--but ours. And, by the way, with regard to Otto Warmbier, I want to thank you again. I've done this before this committee a couple of times including when Deputy Secretary Sullivan was here. I appreciate his involvement. As you know Ambassador Joe Yun was critical to us ultimately being able to bring Otto home, so we appreciate the State Department's increased and highly personal efforts over the last couple of months. Again, the process that we've gone through that last 18 months with DPRK with regard to Otto Warmbier indicates to me the level of depravity that exists within that regime.

"One final question, Mr. Chairman, if I could. This has to do with economic sanctions. Many of us have talked about the imposition of broader sanctions by particularly having Chinese companies brought into the sanctions regime, because there are hundreds if not thousands of Chinese companies, as I understand, still doing business with North Korea, some of whom are involved with dual technology that's had an effect not just on their commercial activities but also their military activities. Let me ask you about the sanctions that are in place. Are they working? Are they affecting the pace with which the country of North Korea has been able to develop and test its nuclear and ballistic missile programs? To what sources of funding has the regime resorted to in order to get around some of these sanctions?"

Thornton: "Thank you very much for that question. I think that what we see as we build this kind of global network to try to increase the pressure on this regime and prevent proliferation, especially of illicit technology going to North Korea, that there has been some effect. We are affecting their ability to get things that they need. It hasn't, unfortunately, slowed down their missile testing program. But we do see them needing to resort to new avenues of access to get imports and other things. I think that is one of the desired goals of the sanctions regime is to make things more difficult for them, obviously, to proceed with their weapons program. I think one aspect of this is, as the pressure on the regime, on sanctions, on their inability to transact financial transactions and move things easily across borders without being subject to inspection, etc. -- they will start to look for new avenues of outlet and that's one the reasons why we've been so insistent on traveling out to countries that you normally wouldn't think of as being partners of North Korea to try to shore up the resolve of countries all over the world to keep North Korea from accessing markets that they might now be turning to when things get more difficult in the nearby neighborhood.

"But I think, unfortunately, we have not seen their missile program slow down. In fact, it seems that they are testing at the same rapid rate that they have been testing at lately. So we're continuing to talk to China about that. We're continuing to try to impinge on sources of particularly hard currency financing. We do find that a lot of their production has gone now indigenous, and it's become harder and harder to stop this kind of activity in North Korea.

"I think as we work with China, everybody in the UN sanctions network is conscious, and that's one of the things the UN panel of experts is doing--keeping track of particular items and dual use items that may be of use to North Korea and trying to make sure that we close down those avenues. But we've also just started to work on this and we have a lot of conversations and capacity building to do this with other countries. Some countries have more capacity to catch these things at customs than others, etc. That's one of the things in our conversations with our Chinese colleagues that we've talked about is providing customs assistance for them on the border to catch a lot of this stuff that goes into North Korea. We're working on that with them as are some of our other likeminded allies in the region."

Portman: "Well, Ms. Thornton, I hope we will redouble our efforts to work on that because the alternative is frightening not just for the region, and certainly Japan and South Korea recognize that now, but also for the broader region including China and what could happen on their border with DPRK and now with this new testing of inter-continental ballistic missiles, really for the whole world. So I would hope that we would not only put more pressure on these countries but that we would apply the pressure in a way that it's clear that it's in their self-interest to avoid the potential calamity that could occur if we do not more effectively--through sanctions and peaceful means--curtail what they are able to do on their missile program and on their nuclear program. I know the Chairman is holding this hearing in part to put attention on this issue, and I would certainly hope that is a top priority of the administration, and again, in the self-interest of these other countries, to avoid a disastrous result."