Washington—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress on the second Trump-Kim Summit.
So thank you, Neera, for these kind words. And thank you for your leadership, it’s just been outstanding at a very, very important time. And thanks for the lovely introduction. I always like to say that when someone gives me such a wonderful introduction as you just gave me, I wish a couple of the women in my life would be here to hear it – my mother, my late mother, and my wife. My mother would have believed every wonderful, charming thing you said about me, and my wife would have wondered who you were talking about.
So let me thank the Center for American Progress for hosting us today. And let me also thank Kelly Magsamen and Mike Fuchs for their hard work in putting this together.
I’m grateful to everyone here for your engagement and your contribution to the policy issues that affect all aspects of American life. We’re so fortunate to have CAP to help ensure that progressive policy ideas are developed and discussed, and brought to the attention of lawmakers and officials across government, and I certainly value your work on foreign policy. You know, I have always loved foreign policy. To me, it’s just—people were reading fictional novels and I was reading foreign policy. That’s how I was growing up.
So progressive policy ideas are very important, and that’s what you do here, develop them, discuss them, and brought to the attention of lawmakers across government. And I value your work on foreign policy, and my staff and I will continue to look to you for good ideas and creative approaches as the Foreign Affairs Committee gets to work in the 116th Congress.
And of course, grappling with the challenge posed by North Korea—and this Administration’s policy towards that country—will be at the top of the list. People think I’m some kind of a North Korea expert because I’ve been to Pyongyang twice, but actually, that doesn’t really make you an expert. It’s still a mystifying area, mystifying place, mystifying mood.
In the Washington echo chamber, everyone seems to be a North Korea expert these days. I will not make that claim, but fortunately the panel you’ll hear after me, I’m told, is made up of real experts. So rather than tell you all what you probably already know, what I’d like to do instead this afternoon is to give you a Capitol Hill perspective on North Korea.
How does Congress—particularly the new Democratic House—view the President’s approach? What are the opportunities and pitfalls? And how will we, as a coequal branch of government—I’ve said that so many times in these first few weeks, coequal branch of government—play a role in shaping our policy towards Pyongyang?
My first point, I think, is pretty obvious, but needs to be said: Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle want peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. We want to see diplomacy succeed. Democrats aren’t going to stand in the way of a real opportunity just because it happens to come from an Administration and a President with whom we deeply disagree on so many things.
We fully understand that any conflict on the Korean peninsula will likely cost millions of lives. And we also understand what’s at stake for the people of North Korea, and South Korea.
I’ve visited North Korea twice, as I mentioned. I’ve witnessed what a bleak place it is. It’s sort of stepping backwards in time – the way I described it was 1953 East Berlin. That’s kind of the feeling you got there. Suffering that people endure every day there. I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that the regime’s gross human rights abuses have changed in any way. And here in the United States, I’ve met with Korean Americans—many of my own constituents and others from New York—longing to be reunited with loved ones confined in the North.
This month, the Foreign Affairs Committee hosted Speaker Moon of the South Korean National Assembly. He impressed on our members the importance of keeping an open mind when it comes to a potential process for reducing risks on the peninsula.
I took that message to heart. Because the status quo isn’t acceptable. It’s not acceptable. And if this Administration or any administration puts forth a transparent and credible policy to move things in a positive direction, Congress should take it seriously and act as a helpful partner.
Broadly speaking, what could constitute such a deal?
First of all, it’s essential to have a baseline assessment of North Korea’s existing capabilities. If North Korea declared this information in a credible way, it would send a strong signal about their intent and sincerity. We would also know as negotiations moved forward whether we were making progress toward capping and rolling back those capabilities. I authored legislation that requires that assessment that was part of last year’s Defense Authorization.
And of course, anything North Korea offers us would have to be subject to stringent scrutiny and verification every step of the way. North Korea has put certain facilities on the table as an offer for sanctions relief. None of that means anything without a rigorous inspections regime and assurances that the North Koreans cannot restart their programs outside the scope of an agreement or some time in the future.
The devil would be in the details, but if the Administration brings us a deal that satisfied these requirements, it will get a fair hearing. That’s my commitment.
But so far, what we’ve gotten from the Administration has not been credible and it certainly hasn’t been transparent.
President Trump declared in Singapore last year that North Korea no longer poses a threat. But as far as I can tell, there’s been no fundamental improvement to the security of America or our allies. Mixed messages from the President and his top advisors have muddled our strategy and undermined our negotiating position.
We’ve heard the Secretary of State suggest that we’re negotiating with North Korea without preconditions because they have nuclear weapons. What message does that send to Iran and others around the world? What will be the next country to race towards the bomb because they think it’ll make the United States want to bargain on more favorable terms?
When the stakes are as high as they are in this case, this sort of talk—this lack of clarity and direction—in my opinion, is downright dangerous.
So while Congress will be constructive if this process takes a positive turn, we also have a responsibility to speak up and act if we think things are being mishandled. This is one of my top priorities as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. For years, under administrations of both parties, Congress has essentially handed the executive branch the keys to all our foreign policy vehicles.
Well, I think that’s gone on too long. Congress is a coequal branch of government – Nancy Pelosi likes to say we’re…the very beginning of the Constitution, and we are not second fiddle to anybody – so we’re a coequal branch of government. It’s time that we exercise our prerogatives.
So what will that look like when it comes to North Korea?
Well, we do have legislative tools at our disposal. And even with divided government and the slim chance that major legislation could make it across the finish line in both the House and the Senate, legislating lays down markers. It establishes what we view as a correct alternative to flawed policies. And it sends an incredibly important message to those paying attention.
To begin with, I take the views of our alliance partners, including Japan, very seriously. America is best able to tackle tough challenges by collaborating with our closest friends. The only way we’re going to move the needle is by working from a position of unity with our allies.
This Administration, on the other hand, has sunk into a pattern of skepticism and even antagonism about the value of America’s alliances. I just came back from Europe and that was really evident, coming back from Munich and Brussels. It was really just evident., meeting with the EU and meeting with the heads of other countries. When the President chides NATO allies for not paying their fair share or threatens to leave the alliance – paying their fair share I think is important, but threatening to leave the alliance, you can bet leaders in Tokyo and Seoul are getting heartburn.
What if the United States decides to walk away from its security commitments in Asia? The President has certainly toyed with the idea of drawing down the American troop presence on the Korean Peninsula—which Congress has pushed back on in a bipartisan way. And of course our friends in Taiwan will see what we’re doing and know how it will absolutely affect them as well.
It’s important for Congress to show that we don’t agree with the Administration’s handling of our alliances, and that’s why I introduced legislation—along with other Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate—emphasizing the importance of the United States-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation. This relationship is important for so many reasons, but especially so because of where we are with North Korea.
Where I think Congress, and the House in particular, has its biggest role to play is in conducting rigorous oversight on all matters pertaining to North Korea.
This should have been happening all along. Oversight is another one of Congress’s constitutional responsibilities. But up until now, the Administration – and all Administrations – have gotten away with remaining largely silent about its policies, its implementation plans, and what North Korea has actually agreed to do.
Since the Singapore summit, the Secretary of State has not briefed members of our committee on the talks with North Korea. They have ignored that requirement I talked about before, requiring a report to Congress on North Korea’s capabilities, which we need as a baseline to measure progress or lack thereof. They’ve even cut Members of Congress off from intelligence material related to North Korea—information to which we have had access for years. As far as I’m concerned as the new Chairman, it’s simply unacceptable.
So last week I joined the Chairmen of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees—my colleagues Adam Smith and Adam Schiff—to say that enough is enough. The Administration may have gotten away with circumventing Congress with the Republican majority in the House, but we, as the new Democratic majority, simply will not stand for it.
Going forward we’re going to demand answers and the kind of transparency that the American people want.
The purpose of transparency isn’t just to make the Congress feel good. It’s to ensure that the United States is pursuing realistic and effective policies. We all want the same solution: a North Korea that no longer has nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, or the means to make them, and a country that won’t threaten its neighbors. But Congress and the American people cannot rely on a simple declaration from the President and the North Koreans that the problem is fixed.
We need a candid and realistic assessment of where things stand—both going into and coming out of the upcoming summit.
We need concrete and verifiable commitments and a credible process. We need to know that North Korea is holding up its end of any potential bargain—whether that’s capping fissile material production, rolling back certain capabilities, opening key facilities to international inspectors, or increasing transparency about their weapons infrastructure.
And we need a chance to have our concerns and questions fully addressed. The Obama administration briefed Congress fully and often on Iran and this Administration needs to do so for North Korea.
One of my biggest concerns has to do with the sequencing of sanctions relief.
In recent years, my former colleague and my predecessor as Chairman, Ed Royce, and I pushed through two North Korea sanctions bills that made it to the President’s desk. These laws, along with executive action, have built a diverse sanctions regime going after a range of North Korean bad behavior, from nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to human-rights abuses and cyberattacks. These sanctions made it somewhat harder for North Korea to engage in its dangerous and illegal activities.
But I believe that sanctions are a policy tool, not an end in and of itself. We use sanctions to push for changes in behavior and we need to be open to altering our sanctions... if that behavior really changes.
We shouldn’t lift sanctions as a response to hollow concessions or empty gestures or promises of future reforms, or promises of things that will change, even though we don’t really believe it. We’ve heard it from the North Koreans again and again. Empty gestures may be enough for this President. But they won’t fool me.
So, as part of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s oversight role, I’ll be keeping a close eye on what happens after this summit.
Sanctions imposed for human-rights abuses or an illegal nuclear program should not be eased in response to, say, a political declaration of a cessation of hostilities or offers of economic integration. If the North Koreans want human-rights sanctions lifted, there needs to be real progress on human rights. If the North Koreans want nuclear sanctions lifted, there needs to be real progress on denuclearization. Move for move.
And if I sense that the Administration is jeopardizing our security or that of our allies in order to claim victory or signal progress, I guarantee you that the officials responsible will be explaining why before our Committee.
So let me close by saying that, as Congress and the Foreign Affairs Committee press for these answers, we need to be able to look to all of you for your guidance and expertise. And you know well, this is one of the most intractable foreign policy challenges that we face.
We’re all rooting for success, and again, if the President is able to pull it off, I’ll be the first one to say, “Well done, Mr. President.” But our role must be to bring a realistic view and a healthy dose of skepticism when the President takes another victory lap. Working together, I’m confident that we’ll hold the Administration accountable while at the same time amplifying the ideas that we think would result in real progress.
So I look forward to our ongoing partnership. And I thank you all for your commitment.
Thank you so much.
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