WASHINGTON West Coast lawmakers are urging the Trump administration to alter its approach toward North Korea after Pyongyang’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking Alaska, and possibly other parts of the United States.
The trouble is, they can’t agree on what that alteration should look like.
In public, Republicans generally support the administration, but want the United States to more quickly tighten the screws on Pyongyang by adopting stronger financial sanctions. In Alaska, two GOP congressmen also are pushing legislation to expand the ground-based missile interceptor system in the state, creating a stronger missile shield against a possible North Korean attack.
But several West Coast Democrats are criticizing the president for a “failed” and vacillating strategy toward North Korea, with some urging him to seek diplomatic options instead of heightening tensions and possibly stumbling into a military conflict.
“Now is the time to negotiate and use all of America’s non-military sources of power, not escalate and cause a fatal miscalculation,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
North Korea on Tuesday launched what analysts say was a “new” and never-before-seen missile that reached an altitude of 1,700 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan. If fired on a standard trajectory, the missile could have a range of up to 4,970 miles, making it capable of hitting Alaska and possibly Hawaii, according to South Korean officials.
While Pyongyang may not yet have the capability to target the West Coast, analysts say it is rapidly advancing its missile systems and working to equip them with miniaturized nuclear weapons.
Tuesday’s launch, timed to precede July 4 festivities in the United States and following the recent U.S. visit of South Korea’s president, immediately intensified the situation. “Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of American troops based in Seoul, in a statement.
It also prompted an emergency meeting on Wednesday of the U.N. Secretary Council, requested by the United States, South Korea and Japan.
Addressing the Security Council, Nikki Haley said the United States preferred not to use military force but that North Korea was “quickly closing off” options for a diplomatic solution. She called on the council to adopt stronger sanctions on North Korea to restrict its access to hard cash and materials used in its weapons programs.
Overall, congressional Republicans and Democrats are united in recognizing the North Korean threat, which many now see as the leading security concern to the country, greater than even ISIS. There’s also wide agreement that China, North Korea’s main trading partner, is a crucial player in pressuring Pyongyang to halt, or at least slow down, its weapons programs.
But agreement breaks down over potential responses, ranging from preemptive military strikes to how to best engage Beijing in enforcing sanctions.
Part of the split in Congress reflects the range of opinion among security experts who specialize in Korea.
“People are divided on a whole range of issues,” said Stephan Haggard, a California-based Korea specialist affiliated with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. One of the biggest, he said, was whether to negotiate with North Korea, and if so, under what conditions.
Since taking office, the Trump administration dealt with North Korea on some level, as it did while negotiating the release of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who returned in a coma and later died. But it also has deployed a submarine and three aircraft carriers in the region and in January, referring to North Korean goals of deploying missiles that could reach the United States, Trump tweeted: “It won’t happen!”
Four months later, Trump said he’d be “honored” to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un under the “right circumstances,” raising confusion about the administration’s strategy.
“The Trump administration has backed itself into a corner,” Lieu told McClatchy. “The president has made provocatory statements and sent military power into the region. But North Korea has not changed its behavior so now the administration faces either backing down or escalating its military actions. Neither of those are very good options.”
The Peterson Institute’s Haggard said that, despite appearances, the administration does have a coherent strategy, one offered by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others. Tillerson has made clear the United States will not support a nuclear-armed North Korea with ICBMs, and is pressuring China to deter Pyongyang from that goal. At the same time, he has sent Kim and China messages that the White House has no plans to instigate an attack against North Korea or attempt to reunify the peninsula.
“That’s all good” said Haggard, a professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. “But then you have Trump saying things that don’t seen coherent or consistent with that strategy. It is classic Trump.”
More than their eastern counterparts, West Coast lawmakers have been urging preparations for a fully nuclear-armed North Korea. During a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that focused on the threat, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-California said: “We ought to have civil defense in this country.”
In Alaska, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan seized on Tuesday’s missile launch to urge passage of his legislation to expand missile defense batteries at Ft. Keely in Alaska. “Now more than ever, it’s imperative for Alaskans and the rest of the nation that we be prepared,” said Sullivan in a Facebook post.
So far, no price tag has been attached to Sullivan’s proposal or that of a companion House measure from Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. Both have come under scrutiny for their uncertain cost and whether they could be plagued with problems of other missile defense systems. Sullivan could not be reached directly on Wednesday.
Polls suggest that a significant number of Republicans are favorable toward U.S. military intervention in North Korea. But support falls off among those aware of the region’s geography, and the possible consequences to South Korea, Japan and U.S. military personnel, if Pyongyang were to retaliate.
Along with nuclear and chemical weapons, North Korea has deployed an array of artillery along its border with South Korea. If attacked or provoked, it could quickly bombard Seoul, an urban region of more than 20 million that sits just 35 miles south of the border. It could also target U.S. military bases in both South Korea, Japan and possibly Guam.
Meanwhile, Russia and China have recently warned the United States against military action, raising risks of a wider conflict if Trump were to intervene.