Congress Considers U.S. Options When Dealing With North Korea

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Both the secretary of defense and the secretary of state seem to be trying to cool down the rhetoric against North Korea. President Trump keeps heating it up. The president took questions from reporters from his golf club in New Jersey yesterday. And he took his fire and fury line from earlier this week and then underlined it.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So if anything, maybe that statement wasn't tough enough.

MARTIN: Asked what would be tougher than fire and fury, and the president responded, you'll see. You'll see. To talk about the U.S. options in North Korea, we're joined now by Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York. He's a member of the House Foreign Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks so much for being here.

LEE ZELDIN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: The president has gotten a lot of criticism from Democrats and Republicans, members of his own party, for exacerbating the tension with North Korea by making statements like the one we just heard. Do you think the president's language helps or hurts right now?

ZELDIN: Well, it's important that the North Koreans know - and this is where it would help, is where the North Koreans know that military action against the United States would result in severe consequences and essentially would result in fire and fury. But what - where it wouldn't help is if we were to take in the action of fire and fury in response to a provocative statement being said where North Korea isn't actually going to be engaging in military action against us.

So it's - North Koreans, they do speak a different language than what we're - and Kim Jong Un does speak a different language than what we're used to here in the United States. And what's important for him to understand is that there would be severe consequences if he was to launch a nuclear warhead at the United States. And, you know, we obviously in that case certainly wouldn't tolerate that.

MARTIN: Yeah. But I hear you suggesting that you're concerned that there could be a miscalculation made, that on the one hand, President Trump is using the lexicon, using the language that Kim Jong Un is using in that style. But you're saying your concern is that the Trump administration may misinterpret something North Korea says or does and wage a pre-emptive strike.

ZELDIN: Right. Well, the pre-emptive - a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, if we had good intelligence that it was imminent, that the North Koreans are about to, with capability, launch a nuclear warhead to the United States, that is a different calculation than a situation where North Korea does not yet have the ability for that nuclear warhead, say, to re-enter the up - from the upper atmosphere.

The re-entry piece, the targeting piece - there are still unknowns as far as North Korea's ability. And where they might have - where they might be threatening to do something that they don't yet have the ability to do or don't have an actual intention of doing, then that is where you start, you know, looking back at the multilateral diplomacy and the economic pressure.

And it's really only - it's been less than a week since the U.N. Security Council took their actions where - these were massive sanctions. It was a pretty big deal because it was a unanimous vote that included Russia and China. And it was a three - it's $3 billion worth of exports of North Korea, over one third, being cut off. That's all preferred, is getting that to work rather than the military option.

MARTIN: What - are President Trump's words, though, undermining the potential effectiveness of those sanctions if it just keeps escalating the rhetoric and escalating the threats that North Korea throws back?

ZELDIN: Well, if the North Koreans know that significant - I believe that what really triggered North Korea this week primarily was the action at the U.N. Security Council last weekend, that North Korea was going to be amping up their rhetoric and their threats this week solely based on the U.N. Security Council resolution, if not for anything else. As far as the president's words go, it's important for the North Koreans to know that all options are on the table for us and to re-engage with the international community to change their ways in the best interest not just of Kim Jong Un, but also of his regime and his people.

So if it just stays right where it is, the threat being made that military action by the North Koreans would be met with fire and fury - you know, and we're leveraging that in order to make important progress on the diplomacy as well as the economic pressure, which is key.

MARTIN: Let me ask you on that in seconds remaining - are you convinced that China will stick to these sanctions?

ZELDIN: You know, they don't have a good track record. We need to get - it's going to be tested quickly over the course of literally weeks as to whether or not China's serious. So hopefully they do, but it hasn't been a good track record thus far.

MARTIN: Any more effort designed to put more pressure on China - targeting specific banks, targeting businesses that do business with North Korea?

ZELDIN: Absolutely. Wherever you have any entity, whether it's an individual, a - or a business organization that is helping the North Koreans with their exports or obviously anything specifically targeting - directed to their program, then we should be using that leverage to show how serious we are and get China to hopefully up their game. We really hope that that commitment that we saw last weekend is one that they stick to.

MARTIN: Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

ZELDIN: Thank you. Good morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.