No episode however is as cringeworthy as Trump’s decision to give not one but two (!) glitzy summit platforms to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, pretend (with the help of his secretary of state) that progress was being made on denuclearization (when in reality North Korea has been moving ahead while Trump swore off security exercises with South Korea), and then tell the world he believes Kim when he says he didn’t know — in arguably the most closely controlled dictatorship on the planet — about Otto Warmbier’s torture, which resulted in the American’s death.
Michael Abramowitz of Freedom House told me, “It’s strange and disappointing that President Trump consistently believes the words of repressive dictators. An American student was brutally murdered at the hands of a foreign power. But rather than hold that power accountable, the President seems to blindly accept a farcical denial by one of the world’s worst tyrants, Kim Jong Un.”
Given the weak and dim president, it’s up to Congress to provide adult supervision. Fortunately, that is happening with regard to North Korea. Reuters reports:
Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democrat Chris Van Hollen offered the “Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea (BRINK) Act” days after a summit between Republican President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was abruptly cut off after they failed to reach a deal for the reclusive communist nation to give up its nuclear weapons.After the summit, Trump said he believed Kim’s claim not to have known how Otto Warmbier was treated, prompting his parents to issue a sharp statement strongly condemning Kim’s “evil regime” and blaming it for their son’s death.In a statement, Fred and Cindy Warmbier thanked van Hollen and Toomey, and said they believed the legislation would provide useful tools to help change North Korea.“We continue to support the bill and appreciate them honoring our son’s memory,” the Warmbiers said.
I’m curious to see whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) allows a vote on that measure, or whether he would rather concede Kim a propaganda victory than cross Trump. We’re also anxious to see which (if any) self-described hawks — the ones allowing Trump to raid the Defense Department’s construction budget for his wall — think it’s more important to defend Trump’s inanity than take on Kim.
In a written statement, Van Hollen (D-Md.) was unsparing: “The United States should not sit on our hands as reports of North Korea’s efforts to build up their nuclear capabilities continue to stream in. And with talks between the Trump Administration and the DPRK breaking down last week, the need for Congress to draw a clear line in the sand is more important than ever,” he said. “This legislation sends a straightforward message to the regime and its partners that it’s not business as usual. We must expand and enforce sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s regime — the BRINK Act would do just that."
The legislation, the statement continued, “is modeled on the Iran secondary sanctions laws passed by Congress in 2010 and 2012 that helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. The key feature of the bill is that it imposes secondary sanctions on financial entities that do business with the North Korean regime, and those who evade sanctions to assist the regime. The bill also aims to enforce existing international law by mandating tough sanctions on individuals and entities that facilitate North Korea’s trade in coal, iron and textiles; shipping; and labor trafficking.”
Former ambassador Eric S. Edelman tells me, “It is reassuring that there is bipartisan support for calling things as they see them when the president takes the word of vicious dictators over his own intelligence community and even, apparently, his most senior advisers.” He adds, “One would hope that the Toomey-Van Hollen measure receives overwhelming support from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.”
Whether it is North Korea, China, Russia or other bad actors, it is incumbent on Congress (as many members have done in reassuring NATO allies, most recently at the Munich Security Conference) to remind the world that U.S. interests in supporting democracy, countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons, checking international aggressors and addressing problems of mutual interest (e.g., climate change) will outlive the Trump presidency — at least if the voters don’t sentence us and the world to another term. Congress can only hold the line for so long.
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