WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators from both parties vented frustration Tuesday over U.S. policy on North Korea that the Republican chairman of the foreign relations committee called an "abject failure."
Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told a hearing that under successive U.S. administrations, spanning several decades, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs have continued to advance, while its people suffer at the "brutal" hands of the regime in Pyongyang.
"I see no change. I see no hope for dealing with this issue," Corker said, but he added he's committed to working with Republicans and Democrats to see what Congress can do "to move the needle on North Korea" although he said options are limited.
Two bills to tighten sanctions have been introduced in the Senate this year, but the prospects for either measure becoming law remain uncertain.
Sen. Ben Cardin from Maryland, the committee's top-ranking Democrat, said he doubted whether any country treated its people worse than North Korea, and despite growing world pressure on its human rights record, "it continues to do that."
"I'm looking for new ideas," Cardin said.
State Department officials testifying Tuesday didn't offer any.
"It's persistence more than new ideas that are going to bring about change," said Robert King, the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights.
Sung Kim, the top envoy on North Korean, said he shared lawmakers' frustrations over the lack of progress. He said the U.S. will continue use a combination of deterrence, diplomacy, and pressure to make clear that North Korea will not achieve security or prosperity while it pursues nuclear weapons and abuses its own people.
The officials cited some progress.
King said North Korea has faced increased international pressure over its rights record which last December was put on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council for the first time — although the council has yet to take action.
Kim said enforcement of sanctions has improved — including by the North's only ally, China — "and that has caused some pain in Pyongyang," as its revenues from illicit activities overseas have decreased. But he said China still needs to use its leverage over Pyongyang more effectively.
Lawmakers were skeptical that Beijing's stance has changed, including its opposition to referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court over alleged crimes against humanity.
"It sounds like China would rather a country of 25 million people be tortured, raped, imprisoned, beat down on their border (rather) than doing anything about it," Corker said.
Last week, President Barack Obama said the U.S. is willing to negotiate with North Korea, as it has with Iran, but it must be willing to discuss giving up its nuclear ambitions.
North Korea shows no interest in doing that. It says it wants a peace treaty with the U.S. to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War that was halted with a truce. Washington says there must be progress on the nuclear issue first.
North Korea is believed to have a small but growing nuclear arsenal and is developing a mobile ballistic missile that could potentially reach America. South Korean lawmakers in Seoul said Tuesday that South Korea's spy service believes North Korea is preparing for its fourth nuclear test since 2006 but not in the immediate future.
Sung Kim told reporters after the hearing that he has seen nothing to indicate a nuclear test is being planned.