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A plan to end the nuclear crisis with North Korea

January 18, 2018
Ro's Op-Eds
Ro Khanna

San Francisco Chronicle

The false missile alert in Hawaii on Saturday reminds us that miscalculation and human error are major risks that can escalate to war. Fortunately, recent events offer hope for diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has rejected the hardline and failed approach of his predecessors. Under his leadership, North Korea and South Korea have agreed to walk in together in the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea. President Moon has also withstood criticism from his own nation’s athletes as he has supported fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team and joint training for the ski team. Like Nelson Mandela, Moon understands the role sports can play in political reconciliation. By offering a vision of engagement, the son of North Korean refugees has opened a narrow window to solve the North Korean crisis that is contingent on thoughtful American leadership.

We need a three-pronged strategy to make the most of this moment:

(1) I am organizing a congressional letter to President Trump calling for military-to-military communication with North Korea to avoid misunderstandings.

(2) Congress should pass legislation blocking the president from striking North Korea preemptively unless there is an imminent threat to our security.

(3) We must start dialogue with North Korea, recognizing that while the Kim dynasty is a brutal, despotic regime, it has survived nearly 70 years and, unlike al Qaeda, is not suicidal. We must assure North Korea that America has no interest in regime change.

We have channels with every other nuclear-armed nation. In fact, we maintained them with the Soviet Union until its collapse. During the Cold War, when computer malfunctions on both sides nearly led to conflict, bilateral communications helped to prevent catastrophe.

Military-to-military relations are important with a paranoid North Korea, considering that we conduct war games and that our bombers conduct flybys along its border. North Korea’s leadership constantly fears a U.S. attack, making it is crucial that we notify its military when our actions do not pose a threat. The recent agreement between North Korea and South Korea to re-establish their military hotline provides a model. The United States should pursue a similar agreement.

Congress needs to pass legislation restricting the president from launching any preemptive attack on North Korea absent imminent harm. The Constitution and the 1973 War Powers Resolution already prevent the president from taking preemptive action without authorization, but Congress should reaffirm that principle in the North Korea context.

What is frightening is President Trump considering a “bloody nose” strike that involves limited bombing of North Korea with the naive hope that Kim Jong Un would back down and not unleash his weapons arsenal against us. We can stop these risky gambles by ensuring that President Trump adheres to the Constitution and lets the American people weigh in on the wisdom of a potential war on the Korean Peninsula. A Washington Post/ABC News poll indicated the American people, by a margin of 2 to 1, believe that the U.S. should not strike North Korea first.

Most important, President Trump should work toward a negotiated solution resolving the nearly seven-decade-long standoff with North Korea. Under the 1994 Agreed Framework that then-Secretary of Defense William Perry helped negotiate, North Korea promised to freeze its plutonium production in exchange for fuel and technical assistance. Due to this diplomacy, the North’s plutonium reactor — which could have produced 100 bombs — remained closed for almost a decade.

By 2000, however, North Korea violated the spirit of that deal by focusing on uranium enrichment instead of plutonium production. Instead of returning to negotiations, President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of the “Axis of Evil,” and Congress blocked the delivery of fuels promised by the Clinton administration.

Even as Pyongyang offered to abandon its plutonium and uranium programs in exchange for sanctions relief and diplomatic relations, neoconservatives such as John Bolton sought a “hammer” to “shatter the Agreed Framework.” Unsurprisingly, North Korea became the world’s ninth nuclear weapons state during Bush’s presidency.

The Obama administration tried to engage with North Korea, but hardliners in both the South and North were unwilling. Fortunately, South Korean President Moon has taken a new approach. We must follow his lead.

To end the North Korean standoff, we must return to the negotiating table. The president, in consultation with statesmen such as Bill Perry, Richard Lugar and George Shultz, should appoint a bipartisan group of diplomats who understand the stakes of nuclear war. They should be empowered to engage in a dialogue about the scope of our joint military exercises and put forth a framework to achieve denuclearization and end the hostilities between our two nations.

President Trump is most proud of his deal-making. Now, more than ever, the world needs him to live up to that boast. It would be the most historic deal of his career.