Some Democrats on Capitol Hill push for alternatives to a military strike against North Korea
WASHINGTON — Two veterans serving in Congress said Wednesday that they traveled to the Korean Peninsula last week in hopes of heading off President Trump’s escalating war rhetoric.
During a 5-day trip, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former combat pilot, and Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who served as a Marine in the Iraq War, visited with U.S. military leaders and allies in South Korea, Japan and the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
“I have a lot of questions that … have not been reflected in what the administration has brought up as priorities in their discussions on North Korea,” Duckworth, who lost both legs in the Iraq War, said Wednesday during a news briefing to explain what prompted their trip.
The comments could signal a potential, growing divide on Capitol Hill on whether the United States should pursue military strikes against North Korea.
Earlier Wednesday, a key Republican senator lauded Trump's tough rhetoric with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump “is the first president to challenge North Korea,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said during a wide-ranging national security discussion at the D.C.-based offices for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “It’s just not smart to let someone this crazy to have a nuclear arsenal.”
A day earlier, Sen. Ted Cruz expressed support for Trump’s approach and pushed for deeper sanctions against North Korea to put Kim “on his heels.”
"We’ve spent nearly three decades wondering what North Korea would do next,” Cruz, R-Texas, wrote in an op-ed column in Tuesday's Washington Post. “It’s time for North Korea to fear what America will do next.”
As Trump and his administration’s talk against North Korea has grown aggressive in recent months, some members of Congress have worried it could inadvertently lead the United States into a costly and deadly war. Recent false alarms of missile attacks in Hawaii and Japan have added to the fears.
There has also been concern from Duckworth, Gallego and other Democratic lawmakers that statements from the Trump administration suggesting North Korea’s possession of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles is reason enough to start a war with Kim’s regime.
Gallego said he and Duckworth were pleased to hear from military leaders that they aren’t gunning for a fight.
“What we heard was, 'We're ready to go, but diplomacy is where we need to be,’” Gallego said. “I think we need to hear that more from the White House.”
A report last year by 38 North, a website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, suggested a war with North Korea could lead to millions of deaths, with millions more injured.
“There is no such thing as a surgical strike,” Duckworth said. “There's no such thing as limited war. Once it starts, we are talking ground invasion.”
Duckworth also pointed to recent talks between South Korea and North Korea on the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month as a positive development. On Wednesday, the two countries announced they would march into the opening ceremony together as a unified group.
Cruz and Graham, however, issued warnings about the move. On Wednesday, Graham compared it to Adolf Hitler’s efforts during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin to advance his cause.
“I think what Kim Jong Un is going to see out of this is ‘how bad could I be? I’m going to the biggest party in the world,’” Graham warned. “If we can negotiate an end to this, I’d be the happiest guy in the world. South Korea is a great ally, they are in a bad spot. But I think the signals they are sending to North Korea are undercutting what Trump is trying to do, which will make it more likely that we will build up military capability, not less.”
In his column, Cruz argued against lifting sanctions during the Olympics.
“Temporarily lifting sanctions on North Korea to pave the way for its participation in the Olympics, an idea that initially emerged from these talks, would be a grave mistake,” he wrote.
In November, Duckworth and Gallego were joined by several lawmakers in expressing concerns over the rising Trump administration rhetoric, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., another veteran.
The group of lawmakers said they want Trump to understand that he must go to Congress before a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.
Through proposed legislation and a joint letter signed last fall, 16 military veterans serving in Congress, including Duckworth, Lieu and Gallego, signed a letter warning of the dangers of a ground invasion with North Korea.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff has now confirmed that the only way to destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is through a ground invasion,” the letter read. “That is deeply disturbing and could result in hundreds of thousands, or even millions of deaths in just the first few days of fighting.”