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Congressional Role In North Korea Nuclear Talks


This has been a period of dramatic moves in foreign policy and trade policy with President Trump's contentious meeting with the G-7 nations last week, his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and then yesterday's decision to impose a 25 percent tariff on certain Chinese goods. We're interested in what role Congress is going to play here, especially regarding North Korea, so we called Congressman Eliot Engel of N.Y. He is the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He co-sponsored a bill, along with Republican Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, pushing for the Trump administration to regularly update Congress on North Korea's military capabilities and its progress toward denuclearization. He joins us now from his Washington, D.C., office. Congressman Engel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ELIOT ENGEL: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: So let's start with North Korea. What are the current gaps in our knowledge of North Korea's military capabilities that your bill hopes to address?

ENGEL: Well, what the bill really hopes to address is the fact that the administration just really needs to come to Congress. We have really abrogated our responsibilities for decades now in terms of letting whatever administration has been there, Democrat or Republican, and Congress just sort of goes along very meekly. And I think the time for that is over.

We need to know specifically what North Korea has in its arsenal. And we want to hear from the administration what their plans are to change it - otherwise, you know, we find out about these things after the fact. Congress needs to fulfill its constitutional mandate. We are a separate branch of government. I think there needs to be some responsibility for Congress to give us assessment of North Korea's existing weapons of mass destruction, which we call its baseline (ph) now that they supposedly have an agreement.

MARTIN: Let me unpack some of the things that you said, and let's take some of those things step by step. Let's talk about the baseline that you talked about. Before the talks, you wanted a detailed report on North Korea's current nuclear program to set a baseline, as you said, ahead of the negotiations. Did you ever get that?

ENGEL: No, we did not. Of course, we knew that the bill would not be passed in time for that. But, you know, we've got to take a stand and we've got to keep repeating it so maybe some of it will sink in. Secretary Pompeo came before our committee a few weeks ago. But the fact of the matter is I'm dissatisfied as a longtime member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It was the same thing with Secretary Tillerson. You know, they come to a hearing. They say the right things. They smile. They go home and nothing has changed.

MARTIN: So let's talk more broadly about the trade moves that bookended the president's meeting with North Korea. Yeah, some have made the argument that it's very difficult on the one hand to see this administration kind of as a reliable negotiator when the president is upending, you know, prior relationships and agreements with existing allies. And I'm just interested in if you see them as related, and if so, how does it strike you?

ENGEL: I do see them as related. It seems that we are embracing our adversaries and giving a short shrift to our allies. I was embarrassed, frankly, by the way that President Trump acted with Canada. I was just embarrassed with how he acted towards Trudeau. The president seems to, from day one, feel that America's alliances - whether it be NATO or whether it be helping the European Union - he doesn't seem to be in favor of these alliances. And I think you see that with the trade war. It - there's no sense to it. It's just it's - I call it fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants diplomacy. You know, one day, he's all the way here and the next day does a 180-degree shift.

MARTIN: What about this latest tariff imposed on certain Chinese goods that are deemed to have industrial significance, the 25 percent tariff on a sort of a basket of $50 billion in Chinese goods? What is your take on that?

ENGEL: He swings all the way around. You know, one day, he's for punishing China. The next day, he wants to work with China. I mean, you know, again I have difficulties with China and its system and its human rights violations. But the fact of the matter is, if we're going to get success in Korea, then China's got to be involved and one's got to affect the other. And the fact is that we need to work with China.

Now, I'm not saying that we need to rubberstamp things with China because they do lots of things that are really upsetting. But I do think, again, there's no consistency to this president. There's no consistency to this administration in terms of having a policy and following that policy.

MARTIN: That's Congressman Eliot Engel of N.Y. He is a Democrat. He, along with Republican Michael McCaul, co-sponsored a bill pushing for the Trump administration to regularly report to Congress about ongoing negotiations with North Korea. We reached him at his office in Washington, D.C. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ENGEL: Thank you. It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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