Kerry to Testify on Capitol Hill After His Remarks on N. Korea Draw Scrutiny

By Patrick Goodenough | April 17, 2013 | 4:29 AM EDT

Then-Secretary of State nominee Sen. John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill during his confirmation hearing on January 24, 2013 (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

( – U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday will have their first encounter with Secretary of State John Kerry since he assumed the post in February, and although the main topic is the foreign affairs budget, the hearing will also provide an opportunity to grill him on some of the positions he has taken, such as his recent signal of a softening towards North Korea.

Kerry is due to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the administration’s State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budget proposal for fiscal year 2014.

In the midst of North Korea’s latest barrage of threats, Kerry raised eyebrows when he voiced a willingness to pursue fresh diplomatic talks despite a long history of negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear programs and agreements made and broken.

“I’m not going to be so stuck in the mud that an opportunity to actually get something done is flagrantly wasted because of a kind of predetermined stubbornness,” he told reporters in Japan at the weekend. “You have to keep your mind open.”

Kerry added that North Korea would “have to show some kind of good faith here,” and White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday reiterated that it would need to commit itself to “the proposition of a denuclearized Korean peninsula.”

Kerry also made comments during his Asian trip suggesting that if North Korea no longer posed a threat, the U.S. could withdraw some missile defenses from the region, viewed as an irritant to China.

“If the threat disappears, i.e., North Korea denuclearizes, the same imperative does not exist at that point in time for us to have to have that kind of robust, forward-leading posture of defense,” Kerry said in Beijing.

The remarks prompted some criticism at home.

“Congress should call on the Obama administration to rebuke Secretary Kerry’s comments about potential missile defense concessions to China and instead reaffirm America’s commitment to our missile defense efforts,” said Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) director Christopher Griffin and policy director Robert Zarate.

“There is no reason to suggest weaker U.S. missile defenses after learning that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile threat is much more advanced than previously believed.”

U.S. diplomats since the early 1990s have been holding out the offer of diplomatic and economic incentives and steps to address the North Koreans’ “concerns with respect to their security” – as Kerry put it on Sunday – in exchange for a suspension of nuclear activity.

But nothing has worked. The “Agreed Framework” negotiated in 1994, the 2005 “joint statement” on denuclearization, a follow-up 2007 agreement to shut down the Yongbyon reactor, and the February 2012 “Leap Day deal” all fell through, even as Pyongyang continued to advance its nuclear and missile capabilities.

“Despite years of broken promises, bad-faith negotiations, cunning violations of both the spirit and letter of agreements, Kerry and the Obama administration have shown they have no new ideas for dealing with Kim Jong-un and his rogue regime,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Auslin wrote Monday in an article examining Kerry’s comments.

Kerry has in past years advocated direct, bilateral talks with North Korea, both as a presidential candidate in 2004 and more recently in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Budget priorities

The focus of the committee hearing is the administration’s $47.8 billion FY2014 budget request for the State Department and USAID.

“In light of our serious fiscal situation, it is critical that our limited resources be prioritized in a manner that most effectively meets our many vital foreign policy challenges,” committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R–Calif.) said in a statement.

“This hearing will provide an opportunity for committee members to press for an explanation of the administration’s proposed prioritization of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”

Of concern for many lawmakers is diplomatic security and the steps taken since last September’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi to ensure better protection for facilities and personnel abroad.

The FY2014 budget request includes $4.4 billion to secure facilities and personnel, including funding to speed up the construction of “as many as ten new, secure diplomatic facilities.”

“Following the September 2012 attacks on several of our embassies and the subsequent recommendations of the Accountability Review Board (ARB), the Department has undertaken a worldwide review of our overall security posture to identify and implement additional measures to bolster the security of our facilities and personnel where necessary,” the budget proposal states.

Another administration budget priority certain to be raised in the hearing is its proposed fund to support “Arab spring” transitions.

The Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund aims to advance reform in the Arab world and would allow the U.S. “to respond to emerging opportunities to support early transitions so that nascent reforms can continue,” according to the budget proposal.

After failing to get congressional approval for $770 million for the fund last year, the administration is asking for some $580 million this time around.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow