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For too many years, the standard response whenever North Korea stages a provocation has been to dismiss the seriousness of the threat. It’s an eccentric regime run by a delusional leader, the thinking goes.  It’s certain to collapse any day.  No need to worry, we are told.

In my view, we ignore North Korea at great risk to our national security.  Four nuclear tests, three Kims, two violations of UNSC resolutions in the last month, and alarms should be ringing, to say nothing of attempts by North Korea to transfer nuclear technology to other rogue states. One such attempt, in the case of Syria, was thankfully stopped by Israel. We can only ask: is a cash-flush Iran, enriched by sanction relief, next in line? It is time now for the United States to take the North Korea challenge seriously.

Today North Korea is estimated to have accumulated enough fissile material to produce more than a dozen nuclear weapons. It has developed a modern gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program to go along with its plutonium stockpile.  It has now conducted four nuclear tests, and it is seeking the capability to mate a warhead with a vehicle capable of delivering it.  Kim Jong-un has consolidated his grip on power and seems determined to proceed on a course of Byungjin, strengthening both his military and his economy. Unless we can determine an effective path that stops him, North Korea may well become a nuclear power.

The adoption of sanctions under Gardner-Menendez legislation, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which the Senate is set to consider this week would prevent that from happening. It creates a new policy framework that combines effective sanctions and effective military countermeasures and leaves no doubt about our determination to neutralize any threat with robust, realistic diplomacy to reach the clear goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

This bipartisan bill expands and tightens enforcement of sanctions for North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development and other destructive activities. It requires the president to investigate sanctionable conduct, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms-related materials, luxury goods, human rights abuses, activities undermining cyber security and the provision of industrial materials like precious metals or coal for use in a tailored set of activities, including WMD, proliferation activities, or for use in prison and labor camps.

Its provisions would require the president to sanction any person found to have materially contributed to the above activities.  Penalties would include the seizure of assets, visa bans and denial of government contracts. It also provides for some flexibility; we have ensured that the president retains the discretionary authority to sanction any entity or person transferring or facilitating the transfer of financial assets and property of the North Korean regime.

From a strategic perspective, the bill would promote a strategy to improve implementation and enforcement of multilateral sanctions; a strategy to combat North Korean cyber activities; and a strategy to promote and encourage international engagement on the critical issue of human rights-related issues.

There are serious questions about the human rights of the North Korean people, who the Kim regime unapologetically exploits, that must be addressed.  Under the rule of Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains among the most harshly repressive countries in the world.  All basic freedoms have been severely restricted.  A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in any other country.  The list includes extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.

The Gardner/Menendez bill would create for the first time the basis in law to designate and sanction North Korea for human rights violations, elevating those fundamental issues of human dignity and value to equal importance as nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

In my view, there is no basis for successfully dealing with the North absent a solid foundation for policy rooted in the United States – Republic of Korea Alliance.  In President Park we have an important partner for charting out our future course in dealing with North Korea.  Our partnership with Japan also presents new opportunities for building a more effective approach to dealing with Pyongyang.

Whatever one’s views on the various U.S. policy efforts of the past two decades – what has worked and what has not worked and why – there can be little question that these efforts have failed to end to North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs, failed to reduce the threat posed by North Korea to our allies, failed to alleviate the suffering of North Korea’s people, and failed to lead to greater security in the region.

And I have no illusions that there are easy answers when it comes to dealing with a regime like North Korea.  But with passage of this legislation I am firmly of the view that we have now put our policy on a course equal to the challenge.


Mr. Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.