Senator Chris Van Hollen's Keynote Remarks at the 8th Annual CSIS ROK-U.S. Strategic Forum

This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on September 25, 2023. Watch the full video here.

Victor Cha: Good? OK. Thank you, everyone. Good afternoon. Welcome to everyone here, as well as our audience online. For those online, welcome to the eighth CSIS Strategic Forum on Korea. My name is Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea chair at CSIS, and professor at Georgetown.

And it is, indeed, my distinct privilege to introduce our keynote speaker, Senator Chris Van Hollen. Senator Van Hollen was elected to the U.S. Senate representing the great state of Maryland in November 2016. He previously served in the House of Representatives representing Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. He currently serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy.

Senator Van Hollen has been a tireless advocate of a strong U.S.-Korea alliance in his role on the Korea Caucus. In the Senate, he has cosponsored important legislation condemning North Korean human rights abuses, and imposing sanctions and banking restrictions on North Korea for its proliferation behavior and human rights abuses. This past April, in advance of President Biden’s state visit welcoming the South Korean president, Senator Van Hollen introduced a bipartisan resolution recognizing the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-Korea alliance. The senator said, quote, “Over the last 70 years, the strong bonds that have been built between the United States and the Republic of Korea have resulted in countless economic, diplomatic, and strategic benefits to our two nations. On this anniversary, we celebrate our common values and the progress we’ve made together, and we recommit to this partnership between our countries that serves as a linchpin for peace and prosperity in the region.”

Ladies and gentlemen, there is no stronger supporter of the U.S.-Korea alliance. Please welcome Senator Chris Van Hollen. (Applause.)

Senator Christopher Van Hollen: Good afternoon, everybody. And let me start by thanking you, Dr. Cha, for moderating the discussion that we will have shortly, and to CSIS and the Korea Foundation for bringing us together today for this important conversation.

Let me say at the start that I’m sure many of you are wondering whether Congress will avoid a shameful and unnecessary government shutdown starting October 1st, and I’m happy to discuss that during the question period if there are any questions on that.

I will say that even more importantly from a global perspective is whether the United States will continue to provide Ukraine with the material support it needs to defend itself against Putin’s war. Our friends, like South Korea, and our foes are all certainly watching to assess the strength and consistency of our commitment.

The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States was forged in mutual sacrifice seven days ago – seven decades ago – (laughter) – and we are now celebrating it for the – over the next week – and remains the linchpin for peace and prosperity in East Asia. Our partnership, as those gathered in this room know, is based not only on mutual security interests, but also on robust trade relations, deep people-to-people ties, and our shared values anchored in freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.

As Dr. Cha said, I’ve been a good friend of South Korea throughout my time in public service. My state of Maryland is home to tens of thousands of Korean Americans who contribute to our communities in every dimension of life and work. In 2011, when I served in the House of Representatives, I cast my vote in support of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. And now, in the Senate, I am a member of the Korea Caucus. The first trip I took after being elected to the Senate included a stop in South Korea, where, in August 2017, I met with American and Korean forces along the 38th parallel to thank them for being on the frontlines of the defense of democracy.

The U.S. commitment to this alliance is ironclad, and we have reaffirmed it in recent months. In April, President Biden and President Yoon unveiled the Washington Declaration to reinforce extended deterrence and respond to North Korea’s growing nuclear threats. That same month, my colleagues and I passed a bipartisan Senate resolution to honor the 70th anniversary of our alliance and to host President Yoon as he addressed a joint session of Congress – although I have to say I was a little – a little disappointed that he did not sing “American Pie” during that joint session in Congress. (Laughter.) Please let President Yoon know that we have coequal branches of government. But that was an important touch, and it’s one of my favorite, favorite songs.

Over the past year, I’ve also been encouraged by the efforts of the leaders of Korea and Japan to heal old wounds, look to the future, and address shared challenges. I was able to participate in this firsthand in May when I met a joint delegation of the Korean National Assembly and Japanese Diet members. This rapprochement, facilitated by the United States, culminated in the historic summit hosted by President Biden at Camp David with President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida to deepen our trilateral cooperation and bring greater peace, prosperity, and security to the Indo-Pacific region. I want to salute President Yoon for the politically courageous steps he took to embark on that effort.

This partnership will help counter the nuclear saber-rattling from North Korea, as our nations have committed to share real-time data on North Korean missile launches by the end of this year. I also commend the strong language the leaders issued in response to the PRC’s mounting aggression in the South China Sea.

We must build on this historic momentum in the U.S.-ROK alliance to confront a range of pressing global security and economic challenges. One of those global challenges is, of course, Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has shaken the international order not only in Europe but around the world. Autocrats across the globe, including Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un in North Korea, are paying close attention to the collective response of the United States and our allies and will draw lessons based on that response. As we have seen, Kim Jong-un has gone all-in with Putin and is seeking to leverage Russia’s need for a supply of basic munitions to gain access to Russia’s advanced missile technology.

At the U.N. this week, President Yoon vowed that South Korea and her allies will not, quote, “stand idly by.” Unquote. Indeed, it is important to ensure that there is a cost to the DPRK for fueling Putin’s war machine. Among the steps we should take is to better enforce existing U.S. and other sanctions against the DPRK. I am the author of what is known as the Otto Warmbier BRINK Act, a bipartisan law to tighten sanctions against North Korea by applying secondary sanctions against foreign banks and entities that violate them. The United Nations has identified a variety of schemes the DPRK is using to evade those sanctions and some of the firms that are aiding and abetting in that effort. I have spoken to the Department of Treasury – U.S. Department of Treasury about this, and we need to do more to plug the gaps in the enforcement regime, including cracking down on North Korea’s use of crypto to evade sanctions to fund its illegal weapons programs.

We should also shine a brighter light on the horrendous human rights abuses in North Korea. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, I will be exploring these questions more deeply at an upcoming hearing that I’m holding on the Korean Peninsula and getting what I know will be good advice from Dr. Cha, who will be one of the witnesses at that hearing.

Of course, it is not only Kim Jong-un who is watching our response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine; so is President Xi, especially as he weighs his options in Taiwan. By all accounts, Xi has taken note of the unity of NATO alliance as well as South Korea, Japan, and other democratic partners in the face of that aggression.

In fact, our comparative advantage in meeting the challenges posed by Russia, the PRC, or other authoritarian regimes has been the strength of our alliances and the ability to mobilize those alliances to face common threats. Last week, Ukrainian President Zelensky delivered a clear message when we met in the Old Senate Chamber, the message that this is no time to waver in our support for Ukraine. President Biden has proposed a supplemental request of $24 billion for Ukraine, and we must make at least a down payment on that amount as part of any short-term continuing resolution. I know there is a – I know there is broad bipartisan support in the United States Senate for Ukraine and sufficient bipartisan support in the House to get it passed.

It is no secret that Speaker McCarthy is scared of his extreme right wing, including a vocal faction that opposes continued support for Ukraine. But he must put the interests of our country and the defense of our democracy above his personal political interests. No one can say they are tough on China if they’re willing to sell out Ukraine.

We must use our alliances and partnerships not only to deter military aggression, but to confront economic coercion and prevent key sectors of our economies from becoming over-reliant on the whims of autocrats. As you know, economic intimidation is a weapon that the PRC has wielded more and more against other countries to influence their political decisions. I remember China using those tactics when I was in South Korea in 2017. At that time, the PRC was trying to discourage South Korea from deploying the THAAD missile defense system by banning Chinese tour groups from visiting South Korea and forcing nearly all of South Korea’s conglomerate Lotte Group stores in China to close. I salute South Korea for its resilience in the face of these punitive measures, which still have not been fully lifted, as the THAAD system moves closer to full operation. It was good to see those intimidation tactics – tactics of economic coercion – fail.

South Korea, of course, is not alone. Australia, Lithuania, and many other countries have been subject to these tactics. That is why at the recent G-7 summit in Hiroshima, where South Korea was invited as a special guest, they announced the creation of the Coordination Platform on Economic Coercion, so we can better work together to address that issue.

Europe learned the hard way that it was a mistake to become over-reliant on Russian oil and gas. It is a lesson we all must take to heart when it comes to the importance of diversifying critical supply chains and ensuring we are working with trusted partners when it comes to essential technologies, whether they be advanced semiconductors or critical minerals for batteries and EVs. That is why it has been important that the United States and South Korea work together as part of the Minerals Security Partnership and Chip 4. We must ensure that the PRC does not have a chokehold over the industries that will define the economy of the future.

We must also work together to prevent the export of advanced, cutting-edge technologies that can be used to significantly enhance the PRC’s military capabilities and adopt rules to limit the deployment of capital for such limited purposes. The Department of Treasury recently issued outbound investment guidelines for U.S. companies. But the success of these strategies ultimately depends on very close cooperation and coordination among friends and allies, including South Korea.

Finally, the United States and the Republic of Korea have a strong mutual interest in working with other countries throughout East Asia and the Pacific, as well as with regional organizations like ASEAN, to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific that respects the sovereignty of all its members. We have an important stake in helping countries establish transparent rules and governance structures that help attract the private investments that can generate greater prosperity, opportunity, and stability for their peoples. These efforts are important in their own right, as well as to provide viable alternatives to the debt traps and authoritarian models being promoted by others.

But you can’t beat something with nothing. That is why, working with our partners like South Korea, the United States must provide tangible benefits through our initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, IPEF; the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment; and the Just Energy Transition Partnership, known as JET-P. The upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in San Francisco this November will give the United States an opportunity to advance our vision for the region. As we do, the relationship between the United States and South Korea stands out as a leading example of the benefits and opportunities that flow from a partnership like ours.

Thank you to CSIS, thank you to the Korean Foundation for convening this discussion on how that partnership can help promote democracy, freedom, and security in East Asia and, indeed, around the world. Thank you all for being part of this important gathering. (Applause.)

 Dr. Cha: Well, thank you very much, Senator, for those remarks. They were really terrific. Quite substantive and quite broad in scope. First, let me thank you for joining us. This year is a very special conference, as you know, because it’s the 70th anniversary. And we’re really grateful that you could join us.

Just speaking personally, I’ll say that your role – your role, and those of your colleagues, when it comes to relationships like the U.S.-Korea alliance are so important because you represent continuity in our policies at a time when our politics are a bit unpredictable. The main question many of us get when we go to Korea is not about North Korea or even about supply chains. It’s always about our election. (Laughs.) And so your role and those of your colleagues when you travel to the region are very important in terms of instilling confidence in the stability of the relationship. So thank you. Thank you for that.

Sen. Van Hollen: Thank you.

Dr. Cha: You opened the door in your initial remarks, so I’m going to step through it and ask you, first of all, you know, where do we stand in terms of this potential government shutdown? And what does it mean for foreign policy, right? You mentioned the CR and Ukraine, with the downpayment on Ukraine. But what generally does this mean for our foreign policy? And how should our allies be thinking about this?

Sen. Van Hollen: Sure. Well, you’re right. I opened the door. I figured you’d step through that, Dr. Cha. (Laughter.) So, look, we have just a matter of days now to try to avoid a government shutdown. I think all of you have probably been following this closely. The challenge has been in the House of Representatives, which traditionally goes first on appropriations bills and continuing resolutions. But they haven’t been able to get a bill out.

They just haven’t been able to pass any bill, even measures that I would consider totally unacceptable and extreme. We want them to get something over to the United States Senate, where we do have bipartisan agreement on the contours of a continuing resolution, and where we’ve also passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee every one of the individual appropriations bills on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis. So we are united in terms of getting a continuing resolution passed to avoid a government shutdown, but also we have a path forward in the Senate to pass bipartisan appropriation bills.

The problem, as I said, is in the House. And we just don’t know if they’ll get it together. Now, if they don’t get it together there is a process we can use in the Senate to initiate something. We’ve identified a bill that did start in the House that could be used for that purpose. And then the question is, what goes into it? And we’re in the middle of those discussions right now.

But I will say that the spectacle of government shutdown hurts us at home, of course, but it also hurts us around the world in two ways. One, is a sign of the dysfunction in the operation of the U.S. government, which obviously is something that would worry our allies and be seized upon by our adversaries. Certainly, a prolonged government shutdown would have a very negative effect here at home and around the world. And that feeds into your broader question in your introduction about the impact of polarization of American politics.

And, as you said, in the previous administration we did have a bipartisan group in the Senate that was very focused on maintaining our alliances and sending a signal of stability and endurance. Part of something called the NATO Observer Group that we resuscitated after it has been dormant for a long time simply to send that message. And, as you know – well know – in South Korea, there were lots of questions too. And we have tried to overcome those on a bipartisan basis.

Let me say, that is where the Ukraine piece does come into play. And it’s going to be very important that we pass that supplemental request, the 24 billion (dollar) request. Whether we do it all at once or in stages, that’s a separate issue. But it is important that we get it done. There are strong bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. I’m absolutely convinced, if you put that up for a vote, the 24 billion (dollars), it passes the House and the Senate. As I indicated, the challenge is the speaker is the one who controls, ultimately, what gets put up for a vote. And if he’s worried that he’s going to lose his speakership, he may have to make a tough decision and put his personal politics aside for the good of the country. So it is very important that we have a – we continue to show the world that there’s bipartisan support for the U.S.-ROK alliance and other alliances.

 Dr. Cha: Thanks. Let me shift to something else you mentioned in your remarks. You talked about how the U.S. – sorry – the DPRK and Russia are all in with each other now. And we were talking this morning about how just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse with Russia or North Korea, they can. Because the two of them could start working together, cooperating not just on arms but also potentially on other sorts of technologies that might be helpful to North Korea. I guess the question I have – and, you know, you played this instrumental role in the Otto Warmbier Act and in particular, from the perspective of experts like us, what was important about that legislation was the focus on secondary sanctioning.

And so, I guess, the question is, how do you look at what is happening between DPRK and Russia? What are your thoughts about – I mean, you can’t obviously talk about it – but your thoughts about legislation. What can be done to sort of deal with this new – this new challenge?

Sen. Van Hollen: Well, we have a hearing on October 4th in my subcommittee, where I’m going to ask you that question. (Laughter.) And I really am looking forward to hearing from the experts because, as you well know, the challenge we’ve got right now, for example, with respect to Russia is we, together with many of our allies, have already imposed very tough sanctions on Russia. And the same is true with respect to the DPRK. Which is why in my remarks I focused on implementing those sanctions.

I mean, if there are other things we can be doing to exact a price from North Korea for its help to Putin’s war machine, I’m very interested in hearing about it. But in the – until we sort of find that additional pain point, it is important that we work together to make sure that existing sanctions are applied. And the U.N. has, on an annual basis, issued a report that identifies a lot of gaps in that sanctions regime.

And so I have been working with the Treasury Department for some time now to help identify those gaps. As you know, for our sanctions, we have to have a certain standard of proof in order to make sure that we move forward with due diligence. But in my view the evidence, in many cases, is very strong and warrants additional action there. Also, in looking forward to your comments, really, at the hearing. Assuming we don’t have a government shutdown, because it’s October 4th. (Laughter.)

On what more we can do to highlight North Korea’s atrocious human rights record, and do more to transmit within North Korea the truth about – they’re living it, but I think hearing that the outside world recognizes what’s happening there would be – would be very important.

 Dr. Cha: Thanks for that. I mean, you’re – the legislation that you’ve been a part of, both on the banking restrictions side as well as these secondary sanctions, I think have been very important in terms of helping to close some of those gaps.

Let me just ask you one other question. You mentioned Chinese economic coercion in your remarks. And I guess the question there is how important is it for U.S. partners to play a role in – whether we’re talking about countering Chinese economic coercion or dealing with technology and investment when it comes to the – to China.

Sen. Van Hollen: Right. So there are two pieces to this, right? One is trying to diversify our own supply chains so that we’re less vulnerable ourselves to China’s economic coercion. Especially when it comes to very vital supply chains like high-end semiconductors, like critical minerals and processing. Which is why I think these efforts are so important. I mean, it’s why we passed the CHIPS and Science Act in the Congress last session. It’s why we passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the components that dealt with improving and sort of accelerating our deployment of clean energy here in the United States.

Obviously, we want to work with our partners around the world. South Korea’s benefitted from the fact that you are a free trade agreement country officially, I mean, under a regulator. And so I do think that we have to work together closely and better coordinate our efforts really around the world, including to the region. A lot of other countries in the region. Earlier this year I visited Vietnam and Indonesia. And we are working to try to make sure that we, you know, integrate them into some of these supply chains as alternatives to reliance on the PRC.

Now, on the issue of export of sensitive technologies to China, we really need to work together. And there was a very good recent example, as you probably know, when it came to some of the very high-end equipment used to manufacture semiconductors. U.S. companies, a Japanese company – I think it was Tokyo Electric – and a Dutch company were the key manufacturers of that. And we were able to reach an agreement. I remember when both the leaders from both the Netherlands and Japan were here. Prime Minister Kishida was here. A number of us raised it with him, as well as the former Dutch prime minister when he was here on this issue.

That kind of coordination is really important. But that agreement between three countries only works, of course, if all our other allies – whether it’s Germany or South Korea – are part of this. And again, and I think, you know, Secretary Yellen and others have – and Jake Sullivan – have made clear, our goal is not to, you know, hurt China’s economy. But our goal is to restrict the flow of very high-end technologies that can enhance their military. I think they’ve described it as a small garden but a high wall. And that has to be our focus.

That’s on the export side as well as outbound investment, which we call reverse CFIUS. As you know, in the United States we have a process to screen investments here in the United States. This is a vehicle to screen outbound investments to make sure, again, that they’re not being used to enhance very high technology. But again, that only works with cooperation from all our allies in other countries that have a high-tech sector. I mean, Samsung is obviously a huge producer of semiconductors and other high-end electronic equipment. So we have to agree among ourselves, you know, where that – how big the garden should be, and then we need to make a big wall.

 Dr. Cha: All right. Thanks. OK, so I think we have time for maybe one or two questions from the audience. I’m going to scan the audience. Yes. Yes, Lady Dougan.

Q: This is a little bit of a – whoops.

 Dr. Cha: There’s a mic behind you. Thank you.

Q: This is a little bit of a wild card. But you know, when we talk about sanctions and restrictions, and particularly in technology, we have this new little giant elephant in the corner, called artificial intelligence. And the Europeans, as you know, have gone ahead and done quite a few things on this. And I think it’s safe to say most Americans want to take a balanced view. But I’m wondering what – since we’re here in the context of Korea – what, if any discussions have there been, or are there going to be, with the Koreans and the Japanese on this, and also within the Senate itself?

Sen. Van Hollen: Sure. Thank you for raising that. And AI is obviously one of those huge new technologies. Quantum computing is another. But AI, as you say, is one of those transformative technologies that can be used for good or for evil. And interestingly, in the United States Senate, we’ve convened a series of bipartisan major listening sessions. And I’ve been impressed with the turnout among the members, among the senators. We recently convened a panel where we had really the who’s-who of some of the tech giants in the United States, as well as representatives from civil liberty organizations, civil rights organizations, labor organizations. So we are really trying to get a handle on this in terms of what kind of rules of the road should be established to ensure that we have safe AI and trusted AI.

As you know, I mean, the challenge is to take those 20,000-foot concepts and boil them down into some operational rules of the road. I guess the good news is that there does seem to be a – I think, a bipartisan consensus that this is an important role for the U.S. government to try to, number one, establish those rules of the road, working with others. Then, as you say, there’s the whole international dimension to this. And I think they go hand-in-hand, because I think that it’s important that the United States, Korea, our European colleagues, that we try to move together in terms of establishing these rules of the road, and also establishing international standards. To get ahead of that whole effort.

You know, the United States has benefitted enormously over decades for being one of the standards centers with our allies on key technologies. In Maryland, we’re home to NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technologies, which has been talked about as a potential place where you’d have a test bed for AI programs to see how they operate before you let them out into the wild. Anyway, these are all just right now – it’s discussion right now. But the good news, it’s very active.

Getting back to the – you know, Dr. Cha’s earlier question on political polarization, the challenge will be whether we can come together on something like this, which is clearly a paramount national interest, to try to both define the rules of the game here at home, but also bring in our allies and friends around the world. So that is a – it’s a tall order. The good news, there is a lot of attention focused on this right now, serious attention. The challenge, as I say, in this environment, how do we – how do we, you know, boil it down into operational standards.

 Dr. Cha: In your answer there you used the phrase, “we need to go together.” And, of course, that is the slogan of the U.S.-Korea alliance, let’s go together, “Katchi Kapshida.” So, Senator Van Hollen, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for all of your work in support of the U.S.-Korea alliance. And it’s really a pleasure to have you with us. Ladies and gentlemen. (Applause.)

Sen. Van Hollen: Thank you. Thank you.