1. Update
  2. Nuclear Weapons

Checking Our President on North Korea

February 2, 2018


President Trump and other U.S. leaders seem almost eager for a war with North Korea, with their tough talk and tweeted taunts. South Korean efforts to pause both military exercises and North Korean provocations while building small pockets of trust around the Winter Olympics are the first encouraging signs in months.

But too many U.S. officials are downplaying or dismissing South Korea’s initiative. In mid-January, 38 minutes of an ultimately false emergency alert terrified Hawaiians and the world precisely because its warning of incoming missiles seemed so credible.

A disastrous war is not the only way to stop North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and provocations. Diplomacy and peacebuilding offer the possibility for something better. Dialogue and determination have secured U.S. interests and avoided war in the past. We must give these strategies time to work again—and Congress has a role to play.

Senators and representatives have been largely silent on the threat of war with North Korea. That silence needs to end. Every member should speak out against war and support legislation (S. 2047/H.R. 4837) to stop the president’s stumbling toward war.

Diplomatic openings with North Korea

The terrifying tension on the Korean Peninsula today did not build up overnight. Relaxing it will take time as well.

While previous agreements with North Korea ultimately unraveled, and North Korea ultimately acquired nuclear weapons, those agreements also provided essential opportunities to improve the situation. They were interim steps to buy time for further negotiations. Diplomacy always progresses step by step.

The 1994 Agreed Framework deeply curtailed North Korea’s nuclear weapons development for nearly a decade. Even after its collapse—for which the United States shares a large degree of responsibility—the delay significantly set back North Korean nuclear development.

In 2000, years of diplomacy brought the U.S. close to a breakthrough on North Korean missile development. Even in 2008, after North Korean nuclear tests had begun, diplomacy temporarily froze aspects of the country’s nuclear program. In the end, both sides wasted the precious time and opportunities that diplomacy presented.

It’s both cliché and indisputably true that diplomacy is a marathon, not a sprint. In the short term, it will not be easy nor will its rewards be certain. Both the U.S. and North Korea will find many reasons not to trust each other.

But diplomacy is not about trusting the other party. It is about finding an arrangement in which each side, at each moment, believes it is getting something better than the current alternative. When the alternative just may be a disastrous war, there are strong incentives to work through the disagreements that will inevitably come up and keep negotiating.

The high cost of war

Those who see war as a viable option downplay its costs and denigrate what diplomacy has done. War would be neither quick nor easy. In an unclassified 2017 letter to members of Congress, the Pentagon made clear that only a ground invasion could locate all of North Korea’s nuclear program. War would likely escalate, with massive casualties. The last, conventional war on the Korean Peninsula left an estimated 3 million people dead—about 1 in every 10 Koreans. Even if nuclear weapons are not deployed in a conflict today—an “if” gambling on millions of lives—tens or even hundreds of thousands of people might perish in the first days of fighting.

Such a war, meanwhile, would strain relations with Japan and South Korea, who would bear the brunt of violence in the Korean Peninsula. It would undermine confidence in the United States among European and other allies outside of Northeast Asia. And it would drive more spending toward the Pentagon, at the expense of other priorities that are already under threat.

Congress can prevent this war

The U.S. is right to take the North Korean threat seriously—but that does not require panicked recourse to war. The U.S. and its allies can only engage, challenge, and outlast the Kim regime if our nations’ leaders ignore the foolish promises of an easy, short war and give the processes of diplomacy and dialogue time to secure those benefits.

Congress has the sole constitutional authority to declare war, and it will be a key decision-maker in whether we go to war with North Korea. Some in Congress may feel that it’s politically safer to stay silent, but we must not let them choose their short-term political interests over the long-term interests of the country and people they have promised to serve.

Here’s what your members of Congress need to hear you ask them to do:

Prevent War with North Korea

Take Action 

  • Speak out publicly in support of diplomacy and against war with North Korea. These public statements show that Congress is not assenting to the executive branch’s inconsistent and escalatory rhetoric that is pushing us toward war.
  • Support S. 2047 (led by Sen. Chris Murphy) and H.R. 4837 (led by Rep. Ro Khanna). These bills bar the massive spending required for the president to initiate war with North Korea.

You can speak up, too. If you are worried about the costs and risks of military action, give voice to that worry through conversations, in letters to the editor, and as you volunteer on campaigns. If you wonder why Congress is not asserting its authority over war and peace, ask your elected representatives.

We need to keep the president, and the U.S., from grasping for the tools of war out of panic or fear or a misguided sense that there are no other options. Diplomacy is the only way forward with North Korea. Let’s make sure it has the space to work.