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North Korea has more nuclear weapons than ever. What should Biden do?

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WASHINGTON — Ever since North Korea began building nuclear weapons in the 1990s, the policy of the United States has been clear: Give up those bombs or face international isolation.

After three decades of sanctions, threats of force and diplomacy — including President Trump’s theatrical summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — North Korea now has more nuclear weapons than ever, plus ballistic missiles that intelligence officials say could deliver a warhead to the U.S. And because of the global pandemic, the hermit kingdom has shuttered its borders, halting imports of food and medicine in a way more punishing than international sanctions could ever be.

That dangerous security threat is now in President Joe Biden’s lap, and his administration is expected to announce the results of a policy review on North Korea soon. Experts and people briefed on it say they expect that while Biden will not formally abandon the goal of “total denuclearization,” he will attempt to achieve the more limited aim of diminishing North Korea’s nuclear threat, while at the same time seeking to lower the visibility of a thorny foreign policy problem that has no neat solution.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet at the demilitarized zone separation North and South Korea on June 30, 2019.Dong-A Ilbo / via Getty Images

“Realistically speaking, the administration’s North Korea strategy will probably be open to (an) approach in which North Korea’s capabilities are capped or limited,” Eric Brewer, who worked on North Korea policy at the National Security Council in the Obama administration, told NBC News. “Even if denuclearization remains a component of the strategy, I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t be open to more interim solutions that reduce the threat.”

The administration also plans to seek to reinvigorate the so-called trilateral relationship between the U.S., South Korea and Japan, according to a former Trump administration official who has been consulted.

Whether there are direct talks with the North Koreans depends on the North’s behavior, that person said.

While denuclearization would remain a long-term goal, the U.S. could try to persuade North Korea to agree to restrictions on its delivery systems for nuclear weapons in return for substantial relief from economic sanctions, Brewer said. If unchecked, those delivery systems, including solid-fuel missiles, ICBM warheads and multiple re-entry vehicles, could allow North Korea to launch attacks faster and potentially evade U.S. countermeasures.

Brewer recently co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs with Sue Mi-Terry, who worked on the National Intelligence Council under President Obama and served as a CIA analyst, arguing for a “realistic bargain” with North Korea.

The two, who are both now senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote that the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the regime’s economic woes, and could mean North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be open to cutting a deal.

“Kim has not been easily swayed by economic pressure in the past,” they wrote, but it is possible he is desperate enough for sanctions relief — and confident enough in his existing nuclear and missile capabilities — that he would trade some limits on his weapons programs for a significant reduction in sanctions.”

In an interview, Terry told NBC News, “Right now, we are looking to re-engage with North Korea in some form.”

Victor Cha, who oversaw Korea policy in the George W. Bush administration, agreed.

Joe Biden welcomes President Park Geun-hye of South Korea to the Naval Observatory for lunch, on Oct. 15, 2015 in Washington.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

He noted that North Korea has shut down its borders completely in an effort to tamp down the spread of Covid-19, including imports of food and medicine from China. In so doing, it has imposed a blockade on itself more draconian than sanctions, which don’t usually cover humanitarian aid.

“This is about as maximum as the sanctions can be and it’s all self-imposed,” said Cha, who said Biden may want to offer pandemic-related aid as a gesture of goodwill.

Even with a less ambitious objective, arms control negotiations with North Korea would be “really, really hard,” Brewer said, particularly because Pyongyang has tended to fiercely resist any inspection or verification mechanisms. And any restrictions on the North’s weapons systems would have to be verified on the ground, he said, not just via U.S. intelligence surveillance.

Intelligence officials say North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, leaving the Biden administration faced with a series of unpalatable options. They range from attempting to restart talks that have a history of failure to a military strike that could have disastrous repercussions.

“North Korea will be a WMD threat for the foreseeable future, because [Kim Jong Un] remains strongly committed to the country’s nuclear weapons, the country is actively engaged in ballistic missile research and development, and Pyongyang’s (chemical and biological) efforts persist,” says an unclassified intelligence assessment released Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

After two failed presidential summits with Trump, North Korea has greeted the incoming Biden team with a series of provocations, including harsh rhetoric and a short-range missile test. But so far, the regime has not taken the far more provocative steps of testing a long-range missile or a nuclear weapon, both of which it has done previously.

There is always a chance, however, that Biden’s bid for negotiations fails, and North Korea falls back on its pattern of aggressive and attention-seeking behavior, including threatening its neighbors and testing dangerous weapons. If that happens, the only real option short of war — covert CIA operations aside — is more economic sanctions, experts say.

Critics point out that years of sanctions of various kinds have failed to convince the North to denuclearize. But in fact, observers say, the U.S. has never mounted the sort of sustained and biting sanctions campaign against North Korea that the Obama administration used to push Iran to bargain, resulting in a 2015 nuclear agreement from which Trump withdrew, but which Biden is seeking to restore.

“It took three years of really hard sanctions for Iran to come to the negotiating table,” Terry said.

Those sanctions included penalties against European and other banks accused of violating the law by doing business with Iran. So far, no administration has been willing to levy similar “secondary sanctions” against Chinese banks that keep North Korea afloat.

“The U.S. imposed $8 billion to $9 billion in fines on U.K. and French banks for money laundering for Iran, but $0 in fines on Chinese banks for money laundering for North Korea,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst and Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation.

Klingner and other North Korea experts cite a single telling exception to that rule: An action against an obscure bank in Macau that they say could be a blueprint for putting the squeeze on North Korea.

The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Banco Delta Asia in 2005, accusing it of laundering money for the North Korean regime. Soon, more than two dozen financial institutions had pulled back from doing business with North Korea, imperiling its finances. Even many top U.S. officials were surprised at how hard the sanctions had bitten.

“You Americans finally have found a way to hurt us,” Cha, then the point person on Korea policy, recalls an inebriated North Korean diplomat mumbling during a round of toasts at a negotiation.

But two years after the sanctions on the bank were imposed — including the freezing of $25 million in North Korean assets — the U.S. gave the money back, paving the way for North Korea to re-enter the international banking system. It was part of a deal that was supposed to result in the unwinding of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

That didn’t happen, of course, yet no similar sanctions have been levied since.

Joshua Stanton, who runs the blog OneFreeKorea and is one of the foremost experts on North Korea sanctions, argues that United Nations reports on sanctions compliance regularly provide evidence that could be used to penalize companies, but the U.S. has rarely acted on that material.

“Why are we more tolerant of Chinese banks violating North Korea sanctions than Barack Obama was of European banks that violated Iran sanctions?” asked Stanton.

One reason, Cha and others say, is because the U.S. has long sought China’s help in pressuring North Korea.

“We’ve always been careful about going after Chinese,” Cha said. “It’s a balancing act — there’s a desire to have Chinese cooperation in the negotiations.”

In order for diplomacy to work, it must be backed by a credible threat of force, the former Trump administration official and other experts say.

“The only way to get the North to agree to anything is sanctions plus a military threat, and diplomatic pressure,” the former official said.

In response to questions from NBC News, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said, “The North Korea review is in its final stages and we’re not going to get ahead of that.”

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BBC QT: Michelle Dewberry clashes with Lisa Nandy over Brexit – ‘Who do you represent?’

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LABOUR’s Lisa Nandy and former Brexit party politician Michelle Dewberry clashed during BBC Question Time on Thursday.

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Arizona Senate Republicans sign lease to continue vote audit

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PHOENIX — Republicans in the Arizona Senate have signed a lease to continue their slow-moving audit of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County through the end of June.

The state Senate and its contractors had rented the Veterans Memorial Coliseum through Friday, when they must vacate the old basketball arena because it is booked for high school graduations next week.

Republicans have hired Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based cybersecurity firm, to oversee an unprecedented, partisan review of the 2020 election in Arizona’s largest county. They are conducting a hand recount of all 2.1 million ballots and looking into baseless conspiracy theories suggesting there were problems with the election, which have grown popular with supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Under the new lease signed Wednesday, the ballots, computers, tables and related equipment will be stored elsewhere at the state fairgrounds next week. The Senate will regain access to the coliseum on May 23 and have it through the end of June.

The effort has gone far slower than expected, and only a fraction of the ballots have been counted. The audit was to stop Thursday evening, then packing would begin and continue into Friday, said Ken Bennett, a former Republican secretary of state who is serving as the Senate’s liaison to the auditors.

Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the state’s top election official, has asked the Senate to detail its plans for keeping ballots secure while they are in storage.

Meanwhile, Senate President Karen Fann sent a letter Wednesday to Jack Sellers, chairman of the Republican-controlled Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, requesting that county officials publicly answer questions at the Senate on Tuesday, but she stopped short of her threat to issue subpoenas.

Fann repeated the Senate’s demand for access to administrative passwords for vote-counting machines and internet routers. County officials say they have turned over all the passwords they have and have refused to give up the routers, saying it would compromise sensitive data, including classified law enforcement information held by the sheriff’s office.

Fann proposed allowing its contractor to view data from the routers at county facilities under supervision of the sheriff’s office. “The Senate has no interest in viewing or taking possession of any information that is unrelated to the administration of the 2020 general election,” she wrote.

The county says the passwords the Senate is seeking are maintained by Dominion Voting Systems Inc., which makes the vote-counting machines and leases them to the county. The company said in a statement Thursday that it cooperates with auditors certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and did so for two prior audits of 2020 results in Maricopa County, but won’t work with Cyber Ninjas.

“Releasing Dominion’s intellectual property to an unaccredited, biased, and plainly unreliable actor such as Cyber Ninjas would be reckless, causing irreparable damage to the commercial interests of the company and the election security interests of the country,” Dominion’s statement said. “No company should be compelled to participate in such an irresponsible act.”

Fann’s letter also questions the county’s records that document the chain of custody of the ballots and accuses county officials of deleting data.

In a statement, Trump called it “a devastating letter” and said “the Fake News and Lamestream Media is doing everything they can not to cover this major story.”

The Board of Supervisors met in private late Thursday, after which Sellers issued a blistering statement denying that any data was deleted, calling Fann’s allegations “false and ill-informed” and demanding a retraction.

“It’s clearer by the day: the people hired by the Senate are in way over their heads,” Sellers said. “This is not funny; this is dangerous.”

He did not directly respond to Fann’s request for county officials to answer questions at the Senate on Tuesday, but said the county will hold its own public meeting the day before “to refute lies and lay out facts about these issues.”

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Eight candidates spar on policing, recovery in virtual NYC mayoral debate

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The eight Democratic candidates running for New York City mayor squared off Thursday evening on numerous issues, but their focus was largely on policing and economic recovery.

This was the first debate before the June 22 primary in which the candidates could explain their visions to voters. Whoever wins that contest is likely to win in the Nov. 2 general election, given the city’s large Democratic voter base. However, turnout tends to be low in New York City primaries. Roughly 700,000 New Yorkers voted in the 2013 primaries, which is about 20 percent of registered voters. For the first time, the city will use ranked-choice in a primary, giving voters the option to select as many as five candidates in order of preference.

A recent poll by Change Research placed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams slightly ahead of former 2020 presidential contender Andrew Yang, a businessman, 19 percent to 16 percent. Former city comptroller Scott Stringer, who has faced and denied sexual assault allegations, is at 9 percent. The remaining candidates — civil rights attorney Maya Wiley, former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former Obama Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and businessman Raymond McGuire are tied at 7 percent. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales is at 5 percent. The poll also found 22 percent of voters remain undecided.

However, another poll put Yang ahead with 21 percent and Adams at 17 percent. Stringer and Maya received 10 percent. Garcia received 8 percent, while Donovan and McGuire each won support from 6 percent of voters surveyed. Morales received 4 percent.

Adams, a former NYPD captain, took most of the jabs from his competitors on policing in the city, particularly from Wiley and Morales over his deep ties to the department and the size of the city’s police force. Morales also slammed Adams for dismissing young, Black political organizers who are working on police reform.

“Safety is not synonymous with policing,” said Morales, adding that the city has one of the largest police departments in the country. “Our communities are over-policed and under-resourced.”

Wiley, a former aide to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and ex-head of the city’s police misconduct board, excoriated Adams for suggesting bringing back the city’s controversial anti-crime unit and for his support for using stop and frisk, a program that was halted by a federal judge after data revealed racial inequities, as a policing tool.

“As a civil rights lawyer, all I can say is that there was nothing OK about [stop and frisk],” Wiley said.

Adams then said her questions show “your failure of understanding of police enforcement.”

Wiley said she “certainly” understands misconduct, citing her experience heading the NYPD misconduct board. Adams shot back: “I certainly know how much of a failure it was under you.”

“I told you all at the beginning of this race, when candidates start getting desperate, it’s going to get very nasty,” Adams added.

Yang, who has been consistently seen as the front-runner, took jabs in the two-hour.

McGuire pressed Yang about his reported comments that Black applicants may not be “the best fit” for his business venture, but Yang refused to apologize and said he did not remember making the remark.

“My administration would reflect the incredible diversity of our city,” Yang said. Moderators also leaned on Yang about his long absence from city politics. But the businessman demurred, saying he built a life with his wife in the city.

Stringer was queried on a sexual misconduct allegation against him made by a former aide. He denied the assertion but said women should have their claims heard.

“This is an allegation that is not true,” he said. “I hope the voters will listen to me.”

The candidates also discussed affordable housing, homelessness and public education. In February, the number of single adults sleeping each night in New York City shelters reached a record of 20,822, according to an April report from the Coalition of the Homeless, a local nonprofit. The single adult shelter population also reached records in 10 of the 12 months during 2020, the organization found.

Nearly every candidate agreed that decreasing homelessness was a priority with slight distinction to solve the issue, including the need for increased mental health services in the city. Yang, for instance, called for expanding supportive housing and building or preserving 250,000 affordable units. Morales called for converting office space to create space for the homeless, Garcia called for increasing the number of housing vouchers to get individuals out of shelters.

Wiley said she would shift $1 billion from the NYPD’s budget and invest in trauma-informed care in schools to help communities that grapple with violence. Also, Adams and Stringer were the only candidates to raise their hand when asked whether they would keep all-virtual school as an option in the fall for the city’s more than 1 million students.

The candidates themselves were asked to pick their second choices, however, only four answered. Garcia, who was endorsed by the New York Times Editorial Board, appeared to be the favorite. Donovan picked Wiley, Yang and McGuire picked Garcia and Wiley picked Morales.

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