Trump can’t just tweet us out of problems with North Korea
© Getty

American policy options for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons may have just gotten a lot scarier.

A tweet by President Donald Trump is the reason.

Trump got off to a good start in addressing an existential threat. He recognized that China, by far North Korea’s largest trading partner, is the key to pressuring North Korea to either give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs or, more realistically, agree to some combination of a scale back and a freeze.

ADVERTISEMENT
At his Mar-a-Lago meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early April, Trump offered better trade terms in exchange for China sharply reducing its exports to North Korea.

Then came the tweet. Last week, following the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who had been jailed in North Korea and returned to the U.S. in a coma, Trump tweeted:

 In that one tweet, Trump precipitously declared that his own policy was a failure – after only a little over ten weeks — and absolved China of further responsibility for rolling back the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. Asked to explain the tweet, administration officials veered between bafflement and suggesting that the tweet should not be taken seriously.

But to Xi, who was always reluctant to really pressure North Korea, the tweet must have been heaven-sent because Xi can claim that China did its best and, as to the North Korean nuclear threat to the U.S., well, good luck with that.

Absent meaningful Chinese sanctions, the policy choice is between the unthinkable and the unacceptable. The unthinkable option is a pre-emptive strike on North Korean nuclear and missile installations.

But North Korean retaliation could kill or injure hundreds of thousands (or more) South Koreans, Japanese and Americans, including U.S. military personnel at American bases in the region; and the strike probably won’t fully eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile infrastructure.

The unacceptable is for North Korea to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of detonating nuclear weapons over American cities, which could happen in the next few years.

That would give North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a man of unimaginable ruthlessness and brutality, the power to kill millions of Americans.

This is one helluva choice for any President to make, but especially for one who is not exactly a paragon of careful calculation.

The tweet puts the onus on Congress to exercise its foreign policy oversight responsibilities by holding high profile hearings on the administration’s North Korea policy. The model is the 1966 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam chaired by Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.).

American combat deaths in Vietnam were then approaching 10,000. Prominent retired military figures and foreign policy experts testified that, contrary to the Johnson administration’s optimistic assessments, the U.S. wasn’t winning the war and faced a stalemate.

During the hearings President Johnson’s approval ratings for his handling of the war dropped from 63 percent to 49 percent. Johnson was so angry that he ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to investigate whether Fulbright was a communist agent or dupe (President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE can only dream of having such an FBI director).

High profile hearings would force the Trump Administration to explain just what, exactly, is its North Korea policy and could identify the right carrot-stick combination for motivating China to seriously pressure North Korea (the recent sanctions by the Treasury Department on a Chinese shipping company and two individuals aren’t even a wrist slap).

But any such hearings need to be held soon. The Fulbright hearings should have been held two years earlier, at the start of the American buildup when more policy options might have been available.

By 1966, it was too late. Following the Fulbright hearings, the war went on for nearly a decade and some 40,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam.

The American people deserve, not just an impulsive tweet, but a clear explanation of the policy options for the North Korean threat and their consequences before the body count begins. Fulbright-like educational hearings are the best way to do that.

Gregory J. Wallance is a writer, lawyer, former federal prosecutor, serving as assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York from 1979 to 1985. His next book, The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring, is due out in early 2018. Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.