Avoid stumbling into war with North Korea

War with North Korea must be an option of last resort. It would set off a military exchange that could, in short order, lead to a degree of death and destruction not seen since World War II. It could well mean an exchange of nuclear weapons, bring the U.S. and China into conflict, and set off a global recession.

There is no greater danger confronting the world in 2018 and no higher priority than working to prevent such a thing from happening.

The decision whether to strike, in other words to wage war, should not be left to one man – President Trump. Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution assigns Congress the authority to declare war and gives the president, as commander in chief, the power to carry it out.

Beginning with the Korean War in 1950, Congress has opted to shirk this tremendous responsibility. It needs to reassert its authority before the nation considers undertaking another war on the Korean peninsula, one that would likely be briefer than the first, but far more devastating.

Congress, which also controls the nation's purse strings, should pass a law requiring the president to seek its approval before any resources could be used to pursue a war against North Korea. This would require the Trump administration, if it reaches the conclusion that U.S. security is threatened and no alternatives to military action remain, to present its evidence to Congress.

The legislation should not limit the president’s ability to defend the country if evidence points to imminent attack.

If Congress subsequently agrees that the U.S. must act to decapitate the North Korean nuclear program and/or its leadership, it should provide the president its approval. It would then be up to the president whether, when, and in what manner to attack to protect the nation.

In taking this position, Congress would reduce the chances of war by miscalculation. As things stand now, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un could mistake a military exercise, a poorly worded presidential tweet or an off-course bomber as evidence of a pre-emptive act by the United States and launch a nuclear attack on U.S. bases, warships and/or on its nearby allies South Korea and Japan.

While knowing the U.S. president does not have congressional authority − and legally needs it − may not completely assuage Kim’s paranoia, it could moderate it and reduce the chances of a tragic mistake.

Additionally, if Trump or any future president begins the process of asking for congressional authority, it would signal to the North Korean leader that he is reaching a point of no return. It could persuade him to back off. Granted, it could also lead him to act irrationally, but that is a threat even now.

Some would argue that requiring congressional approval is a form of warning that would give Kim a chance to protect his nuclear assets. But Kim’s military has already taken steps to try to protect its nuclear weapons and development program from a U.S. first strike.

While optimism would be far too strong a word, news of pending talks between South and North Korean diplomats should at least dial back the stress meter. Kim on New Year’s Day suggested a dialogue on easing military tensions and on North Korea’s possible participation in the Winter Olympics in the South next month. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration announced Tuesday they were ready to talk.

Trump and his administration should provide some room for the talks to progress, and not undermine them with taunts or threats that only raise the level of mistrust. President Moon well knows of North Korea’s record of breaking its word after prior negotiated agreements, but he also knows that he must try.

Korean talks could open the door, in a way U.S.-involved talks could not, to accepting a North Korean nuclear arsenal in return for a verification process that assures the number of weapons is capped as is their range.

Kim has made the calculation he needs nuclear weapons to protect his regime from U.S. meddling to unseat him. Trump has said a nuclear-armed north is unacceptable. If the upcoming talks opened the door to a deal South Korea found acceptable, but which stopped short of requiring total dismantlement of the North’s nuclear arsenal, it could provide the Trump administration the diplomatic cover to accept such an arrangement.

The American people do not want to stumble into war. A Congress with a spine and talks among Koreans could provide the best chance of avoiding that outcome.

 

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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