OPINION | Trump can turn up the heat on North Korea for a huge win
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The extensive analysis of the escalating North Korea threat misses one crucial point: It could be a golden opportunity to build a constructive relationship between the White House and Congress.

It was former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who famously suggested that a serious crisis should never go to waste. Well, miniaturized nukes mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles and heated rhetoric about launching them toward Guam certainly qualifies as a serious crisis.

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But virtually everyone in both parties and the calm voices in the White House have called President Trump’s threat about “fire and fury” impromptu or, more bluntly, misguided. While he has continued the bluster, he also seems to be permitting other voices in his administration to dial down the rhetoric and urge negotiation.

 

This is an opportunity. Just before Congress adjourned for August recess, it passed a tough and well-drafted bill imposing new economic sanctions on Iran, Russia and North Korea. Contrary to much of the reporting, the bill does contain carefully drawn waivers for the president. It passed virtually unanimously, with only five members in either house voting against the bill.

It took the president several days to sign the veto-proof law, but when he did the unified message was clear and unmistakable. All three targeted countries complained. In the case of North Korea, complaints were met with a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution supported by both Russia and China.

So now what? A sensible way forward has been suggested by Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies Trump pushed for her ouster Trump to tap No. 2 State Dept. official as Russia ambassador Giuliani pressed Trump, Tillerson for Turkish prisoner swap in Oval Office meeting: report MORE: assure North Korea that the world wants a freeze of its nuclear program, not regime change. China supports this position as does a veto-proof majority in Congress (and probably most members of the president’s National Security Council).

Unlike the Iran deal, North Korea would keep what it has in exchange for full-on inspections to assure development and testing cease. No doubt, they will ask for the end to military exercises in the region, something which might be acceptable so long as missile defense systems like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, commonly known as THAAD, remain in place.

Most experts, including those at the Wilson Center, assess that the North Korean dynasty which has governed the country for 70 years knows it will face total annihilation should it land a missile (or worse, detonate a nuclear weapon) in U.S. territorial waters. But given the brutal deaths of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi (one claiming to have weapons of mass destruction and the other surrendering it), Kim Jung Un is highly unlikely ever to surrender his.

China’s interests and ours are also somewhat different. China wants assurance that nukes will not be used but it does not want an imploded North Korea which would cause massive refugee flows across its borders and the likely emergence of a unified Korea aligned with the West.

I had my own chilling exposure to the North Korean mindset when, on a fact-finding congressional delegation trip, or “codel,” to Pyongyang in 1997, I asked a senior minister what it would take to get his government to stop proliferating missile technology, something our intelligence community believed they were doing. “How much will you pay us?” was his immediate reply. That North Korea views proliferation in monetary terms is deeply disturbing. An alternative to deploying its own nukes might be to sell some to ISIS’s willing buyers and willing users.

So let’s carefully consider the opportunity to align our government on a path forward, one that will generate likely support from China and the U.N. Security Council. Our president wants a “win.” This one, to quote him, could be “huge.” If he can do this the president will dispel questions about his negotiating skills and will make progress in the two areas that most vexed his predecessors — North Korea and relations with Congress.

Jane Harman is president of the Wilson Center. She served 16 years in Congress as a U.S. representative from California and was the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee.


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