Merkley: Trump doesn’t have clear plan for N Korea

Administration didn't specify how military would respond to nuclear tests, other acts

Sen. Jeff Merkley responds to President Donald Trump's first address to Congress, February 28, 2017. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As the U.S. and North Korea continue stoking the fire with aggressive rhetoric and shows of military strength, President Donald Trump hosted all 100 U.S. senators at the White House Wednesday for a classified briefing on the situation.

Sen. Jeff Merkely was among the bipartisan group of senators at the briefing, and like many others, he said it’s still unclear what the administration has planned.

“The briefing we received at the White House contained no information that you couldn’t have already seen in a newspaper,” Merkley told KOIN 6 News via phone.

Trump re-stated his mission to eliminate North Korea as a nuclear power, but failed to provide further details on if and how the U.S. would take military action.

In this April 15, 2017, photo, missiles are paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

“It’s not clear at all at this point… how the United States will respond… if North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, an underground test, or if they proceed to launch a ballistic missile,” Merkley said. “Will we respond immediately by bombing the place from which the missile was tested? And if so, does North Korea proceed to use its artillery against South Korea, which is just 30 km away?”

While tensions have increased since Trump took office, they’ve escalated dramatically in recent weeks as American and other intelligence agencies suggested the North was readying for a possible nuclear test. Although such an explosion hasn’t yet occurred, Trump has sent high-powered U.S. military vessels and an aircraft carrier to the region in a show of force, while the North conducted large-scale, live-fire artillery drills, witnessed by national leader Kim Jong Un, earlier this week.

Merkley said he still has many questions as to what kind of damage North Korea could do with the nuclear program it has already established. However, when it comes to their ability to strike the U.S., he does not believe they are ready.

“In terms of ballistic missile capacity, they do not have that ability,” he said. “They’ve done a few tests of longer-range missiles but they don’t have that ability at this point.”

A man watches a TV showing file footage of a North Korea's ballistic missile at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, April 16, 2017. A North Korean missile exploded during launch Sunday from the country's east coast, U.S. and South Korean officials said, a high-profile failure that comes as a powerful U.S. aircraft carrier approaches the Korean Peninsula in a show of force. The letters on the top read "North Korea, Fire missile." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A man watches a TV showing file footage of a North Korea’s ballistic missile at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, April 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

While that’s good news for Americans living at home, Merkley said there’s serious concern for the tens of thousands of expats living in South Korea.

“They have a massive amount of artillery pointed at Seoul. They can destroy that city in just a few moments,” Merkley said. “If there is an attack on Seoul there will be massive American casualties as well as massive Korean casualties that would trigger an extensive war with a tremendous amount of carnage.”

But because it remains unclear if and when the U.S. will use force against its adversary, there is also uncertainty surrounding the circumstances under which North Korea would attack South Korea, Japan or other parts of the region.

“This is a very dangerous situation and it’s important that there be very thoughtful work on how you take the pressure that’s being applied and convert that to actually achieving your end without triggering a war,” Merkley commented.

Despite shows of force in recent weeks, a statement released Wednesday explained that Trump “aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners.” It made no specific mention of military options, though it said the U.S. would defend itself and friends.

Merkley said he believes having China pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear program through economic sanctions is the best possible approach. But at some point, he added, there will need to be talks between the U.S. and its adversary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report