Tensions between the United States and North Korea are high this week. President Donald Trump threatened to meet North Korea with “fire and fury” a day after Pyongyang said it was ready with “ultimate measures” in response to new U.N. sanctions pushed by Washington.
As NPR reports, North Korea responded by saying it was “carefully examining a plan to strike the U.S. territory of Guam.
Former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton is an expert on foreign affairs; he serves as co-chair for Indiana University’s International Engagement Advisory Board and served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Intelligence Committee during his more than 30 years in Congress.
Hamilton sat down with reporter James Gray to talk about this week’s tension with North Korea.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Congressman Lee Hamilton: I think we’re in a very dangerous moment because of the threat from North Korea. The provocative statements from the two leaders, North Korea and the United States, has fueled alarm across the world, and we could easily blunder into war.
So, I think now is the time to ratchet down the rhetoric and the actions and try to calm things down and open up a political process with North Korea. I don’t suggest that will be easy, but we must turn away from war because the consequences of even a quick, ugly war would be catastrophic in terms of casualties no matter who wins or how they win.
Gray: What’s changed globally by North Korea’s reported possession of nuclear weapons?
Hamilton: Well, the important thing to note about U.S. policy is that we are not just objecting to the threat, although we are objecting to that. We are not saying we will respond to actions from North Korea alone, but we are suggesting that the mere possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea could lead us to take, in the words of one of the Trump aides, preventative measures. I think the horse is out of the barn. I think North Korea has those weapons today. We are in a place where the objective has to be freezing or lowering the level of those weapons.
“I know it’s not popular to suggest that we have to talk to North Korea, but it is essential.”
I do not think North Korea is going to give up its nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have become essential for the identity of North Korea. I know it’s not popular to suggest that we have to talk to North Korea, but it is essential. And what we have to ignite is a political, diplomatic process to get these two leaders to calm down their rhetoric, to take steps to reduce the number of military provocative actions, and get us on a track toward a peaceful resolution to this problem we have with North Korea.
None of that will happen quickly. If talks were to begin, which I hope they do, it will take a lot of time. But it’s better to talk, talk, talk than war, war, war, in the words of Churchill.
Gray: Why point to rhetoric?
Hamilton:Because it has been so markedly increased. Trump’s statement about fire and fury and the likes of which you have never seen. That’s a clear reference to nuclear attack, because we have seen a nuclear bomb go off in anger decades ago.
“This is a precarious time … We’re moving in the wrong direction with poissbly cataclysmic ramifications.”
But of course, the ratcheting up of the rhetoric is not just on Trump’s part. We’ve seen similar rhetoric coming from North Korea, threatening, for example, to reign fire upon Guam.
So you have leaders here that are really stepping up that rhetoric. Both leaders impulsive. Both leaders having moved away from measured comments. And the world is watching. And it’s worried. This is a precarious time, and Americans in all the world have to signal to our leader and the leader of North Korea that we’ve got to step back. We’re moving in the wrong direction with possible cataclysmic ramifications.
Gray: On one hand, I feel I should stay calm, but I also feel I should be worried about this. How should people balance those emotions?
Hamilton: You should be worried, but not panic. There are a lot of moving parts here: military, diplomatic, rhetoric, political, that gives leaders who want to do so, a lot of moves that are possible to lower the tension.
What strikes me is the leaders seem to want to exacerbate the tension in recent days and that puzzles me and deeply concerns me because what you want at the helm of this nation and North Korea is firm measured judgement, and it is critical for the peace of the world today.