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Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: U.S. needs tough, smart strategy on North Korea

Heidi Heitkamp

WASHINGTON — North Korea poses the most urgent national security threat currently facing the United States, and we need a tough, smart national security strategy to keep North Dakotans and Americans safe.

This isn't a situation to take lightly. Despite sanctions and decades of condemnation from nations around the world, North Korea has made alarming progress on missile and nuclear weapon technology, and its rhetoric has become increasingly belligerent against the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's illegal nuclear weapons program, blatant violations of international law, and threats to us and our allies call for immediate action.

There's no question that our military must be prepared to carry out a swift and devastating response to any attack waged against the United States or our allies. Our best defense against a nuclear-armed North Korea remains a credible nuclear deterrent, and North Dakota plays an essential role in that readiness with our intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range B-52 bombers at Minot Air Force Base.

But we need to supplement that deterrence with a more comprehensive approach that draws on all elements of our military, diplomatic and economic strength.

The risk associated with military action against North Korea remains staggeringly high, yet the potential strategic gain is largely unknown. For instance, a preventive strike against North Korean sites may delay the progress of North Korean military programs. But it would be unlikely to diminish the resolve of this regime and could prompt retaliation, with the risk of unleashing conflict that spirals out of control.

Tougher economic sanctions and smart diplomacy — coupled with an effective deterrence strategy — are key to compelling North Korea to move away from its destabilizing behavior.

On the most recent episode of my podcast, The Hotdish, I spoke with two foreign policy experts about the nature of this conflict and our options to deal with the threat. Both of them had important and thoughtful insight into the situation.

Scott Snyder, a leading expert on Korea with the Council on Foreign Relations, realistically laid out the obstacles to persuading North Korea to change course. But he also told me that the stakes are so high that the United States has no choice but to redouble its efforts to find a solution through smart diplomacy.

"We really need to — and I think it's happening — look at every possible avenue by which to address this issue. Pressure is one part of it, but we really need some communication and dialogue," Snyder told me.

I also discussed diplomacy on my podcast with Michèle Flournoy, the head of the Center for a New American Security and a former top U.S. defense official. We agreed that the president should take immediate action by appointing a special envoy, a point person to act as our senior representative to the leaders in the region — China, South Korea and Japan chief among them — but also potentially North Korea, if the conditions for engagement ripen.

Flournoy and I agreed that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has served both Republican and Democratic presidents and commands respect among our allies and adversaries alike, would be an ideal fit for such a role.

The president needs to fill vacancies in diplomatic posts key to forging the close relationships needed to present a unified front against North Korea aggression, and I've been urging him to do just that. Last October, I traveled to the Asia-Pacific region, including both South Korea and Japan, to tour U.S. missile defense systems and gain a better understanding of the threat we're up against.

And I've long pushed for stronger sanctions to get North Korea to back off its aggression. Key to that effort is keeping China honest about its material support for the North Korean regime so Kim Jong Un's lifeline to the world economy is finally cut off.

We must do everything possible to achieve a peaceful resolution to this conflict. I'll continue to consult with our military leaders, diplomats, and outside experts to think in new and informed ways about this conflict, so that we can keep North Dakotans and Americans safe by diminishing the danger of North Korean belligerence.

Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.

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