“While a healthy dose of skepticism is certainly in order, it would be a mistake to completely write-off a policy of tough engagement. At the present time, there is simply no other viable alternative to that approach.” – Congressman Howard L. Berman

Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s committee hearing entitled “North Korea’s Sea of Fire: Bullying, Brinksmanship, and Blackmail”:

Madam Chairman, thank you very much for calling this important hearing.

For over two decades, successive American Administrations have wrestled with the puzzle called North Korea. Every president since Reagan has tried to put the puzzle pieces together, and just when it seems like they’re going to fit, North Korea pulls the rug out from under us.

Today, a peaceful and permanent resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue remains as elusive as ever. Pyongyang desperately wants to be recognized as a nuclear power, and refuses to fulfill its commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons program under international inspections and safeguards.

At the same time, North Korea’s reckless and provocative actions have dramatically increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In the past year alone, North Korea has sunk a South Korean naval ship, shelled a South Korean island populated with civilians, and revealed to the world what we already believed -- that it is pursuing a uranium enrichment program.

While North Korea poses a serious threat to the stability and security of East Asia, it has also, like the Chairman mentioned, exported its destabilizing influence to other regions of the world. Surpassed only by A.Q. Khan’s network as a source for illicit weapons technology, Pyongyang has supplied ballistic missiles to Iran and built the now-destroyed nuclear reactor in Syria. It could easily begin exporting uranium enrichment equipment, nuclear weapon designs, and even nuclear weapons material.

The perennial challenge is how to change the North’s behavior. Is there a new approach we should take in dealing with Pyongyang? Is it even possible to reach an agreement with North Korea that will lead to a verifiable end of its nuclear program, especially now that the regime is undergoing a second dynastic succession?

North Korea has now indicated that it wants to return to the negotiating table, more than two years after the last round of Six Party Talks. But in light of the regime’s previous behavior, it is hard to view this as anything other than a thinly-veiled effort – like so many previous cycles of aggression and negotiation - to mitigate international sanctions, regain economic aid, bolster ties with China, and resume bilateral negotiations with Seoul and Washington – while continuing to stall on the nuclear issue.

Nevertheless, while a healthy dose of skepticism is certainly in order, it would be a mistake to completely write-off a policy of tough engagement. At the present time, there is simply no other viable alternative to that approach.

Despite our differences with China on a whole range of issues, we cannot afford to ignore the role that Beijing plays on the North Korea nuclear issue. As a result of its close political and economic relationship with Pyongyang, China holds considerable leverage over the regime. Regrettably, China has been very reluctant to fully exercise that influence.

The Chinese leadership apparently believes that coddling its neighbor will preserve stability in the region – and perhaps, enhance Beijing’s own prestige and influence with the West. But this is a dangerous game Beijing is playing, one that it may come to regret. Every day that Beijing fails to pressure Pyongyang is a day that brings the North closer to having a deliverable nuclear weapons capability – one that could directly threaten China and cause other states in the region to consider pursuing their own nuclear weapons programs. Continuing to enable Kim Jong-il’s truculence is the surest route to instability in China’s immediate neighborhood.

While the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea is a critical issue that deserves our urgent attention, we must not overlook the horrendous human rights situation in North Korea. Millions of North Koreans live in desperate conditions, many of them facing starvation. They live in constant fear of arbitrary arrest, and know they could be tortured or executed at any time.

We should make every effort to provide humanitarian assistance and food aid to the North Korean people, but we should insist on adequate monitoring to ensure that such aid is not diverted or misused.

I look forward to the testimony of our panel of experts today and to hearing their views on possible creative solutions to the North Korean problem.