WASHINGTON, March 5 (Yonhap) -- In a congressional hearing on North Korea Tuesday, high-profile American experts called for a comprehensive mechanism to hunt down the communist nation's source of hard currency.
They also called on China to lead efforts to restart dialogue.
David Asher, known for his expertise on financial and economic sanctions, said the White House should revive the North Korean Activities Group at the National Security Council (NSC) to oversee a far-reaching campaign against Pyongyang's criminal activities.
"The administration should revive the NSC North Korea Activities Group, appoint a high level North Korea pressure czar at the Department of State, and commence an inter-agency and international effort to actively pursue North Korean illicit activities, weapons trafficking and regime finances using all instruments of national power," Asher told members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The hearing, presided over by the panel's head, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), came as the U.S. and China agreed on a draft resolution sharply expanding sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear test last month.
If the binding resolution is approved by the other members of the council, the U.S. government and Congress are expected to push for full-scale measures to squeeze North Korea financially and economically.
Asher said Washington needs a Bush era-style comprehensive strategy to prevent North Korea from earning hard currency for nuclear weapons and missiles as well as funds for the ruling elite.
From left, David Asher, Lee Sung-yoon and Joseph DeTrani testify at a House hearing on North Korea in Washington on March 5. (Yonhap)
He is known as one of the most experienced experts in the U.S. government on countering money laundering, terrorism financing and sanctions evasion schemes.
He worked as special coordinator of the State Department's North Korea Working Group from 2001 to 2005. During the Bush administration, he spearheaded Washington's campaign against Pyongyang's illegal trading and financial activities.
"North Korea is close to attaining a position it has long sought -- acceptance as a de-facto global nuclear power with the ability to threaten and coerce the United States and our allies directly," he warned. "I believe that in the next 24 months the North Korean global and regional threat could go from bad to worse."
He said North Korea is maintaining close ties with Iran for weapons development just as it did with Syria in the early 2000s.
"What North Korea certainly needs much more than nuclear weapons and advanced missiles is money to cement the power of (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un, solidify his control over the military and pay for expanding WMD and missile programs. Who has both the money and the need for weapons grade uranium, weapons technology and the means to deliver such weapons? The answer is Iran," said Asher, who now works as non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
He pointed to a 2012 scientific cooperation agreement between Pyongyang and Teheran that "appears almost the same as that signed in 2002 by North Kore and Syria."
Given the Syria precedent and Iran's demand, this potential needs to be aggressively monitored, he added.
Lee Sung-yoon, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, agreed that tougher sanctions are necessary to curb Pyongyang's illicit behaviors.
"The U.S. Treasury Department should strengthen its sanctions against North Korean banks and businesses that finance the Kim regime's palace economy," he said at the hearing. "To this end, the Treasury Department should declare the entire North Korean government to be a primary money laundering concern."
Lee emphasized that the North Korean regime is indeed vulnerable to such financial measures due to its "overdependence on its shadowy palace economy."
He added, "The United States is in a position to take the lead in enforcing financial regulatory measures against North Korea's illicit activities and should immediately seize upon the opportunity."
Both Asher and Lee said China is a key player in such U.S. steps.
Asher said the U.S. intelligence community should fully assess the true nature of the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship in various fields including weapons programs.
Sanctions should be considered against the Chinese government, he stressed, if the assessment concludes that China is providing more facilitation than restraint on North Korea's dangerous activities and sanctions violations, including WMD proliferation and procurement.
Another former senior U.S. government official, Joseph DeTrani, said North Korea will likely continue missile launches and nuclear tests.
China is crucial not only in enforcing sanctions but also in resuming talks, he said.
"My personal view is that China should do what they did in April 2003 when they convened an emergency meeting of the U.S., North Korea and China to discuss the tension in the region and arrange for the six-party process to be established," said DeTrani, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
He worked as Washington's special envoy for the now-suspended six-party talks with North Korea, also involving South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
He has handled North Korea issues for a long time, most recently as director of the National Counter Proliferation Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2010 to 2012.
Royce, chairman of the committee, said he convened the hearing to solicit advice on his plan to introduce legislation to punish North Korea financially.
"The purpose of today's hearing is to examine how best to pressure North Korea's ruling elite by systematically restricting their access to hard currency," the lawmaker said. "We must go after Kim Jong-un's illicit activities like we went after organized crime in the United States: identify the network, interdict shipments, and disrupt the flow of money."
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member of the panel, said tackling Pyongyang's criminal activities is a important task to curb its weapons development and transfer.
"The North Korean regime's criminal conduct - including drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, the sale of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to rogue regimes in Iran and Syria, and the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, cigarettes and pharmaceuticals - serves as a lifeline to keep itself in power," he said.