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US Senators Set to Attend White House Briefing on North Korea

With tensions on the Korean peninsula at a boiling point, the entire U.S. Senate heads to the White House in coming hours for a classified briefing on the North Korean threat and the Trump administration’s strategy to counter it.

Senators of both parties are going into the briefing absolutely convinced that North Korea is racing to develop the capability to deliver a nuclear strike on the United States.

“I want to hear more about the capabilities of the North Koreans, our efforts to get China involved in pressuring North Korea to cease and desist and other options in terms of sanctions, in particular, that we might be exploring,” said Senator Susan Collins in an interview with VOA.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain described a nuclear-capable North Korea as a threat of historic proportions.

“I think the situation in one respect is as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis was,” McCain told VOA’s Serbian Service. He added that the regime of Kim Jong Un is much more unstable than those of his father or grandfather, so military options must remain on the table.

Senator Chris Coons told VOA he believes North Korean President Kim Jong Un feels threatened by the U.S. and is going all out to develop a “credible nuclear deterrent” as a result.

“He is dedicating all the resources of his country to developing not just nuclear weapons but the means to deliver them,” Coons said. “Not just the means to deliver them, but the means to deliver them to attack the United States. That is exceptionally dangerous.”

A long-awaited U.S. missile defense system will be operational in South Korea within a matter of days to protect the country from a possible strike by North Korea.

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific region gave the assurance on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System, also known as THAAD, Wednesday during an appearance before the lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee.

The U.S. had started shipping components for the missile defense system to South Korea in March and the final parts arrived earlier this week.

“It will be operational in the coming days and able to better defend South Korea,” U.S. Pacific Command Commander, Adm. Harry Harris told U.S. lawmakers, warning the threat from Pyongyang is not limited to the Korean Peninsula.

“With every test, Kim Jong Un moves closer to his stated goal of a pre-emptive nuclear strike capability against American cities,” Harris told members of the House Armed Services Committee.

“I don’t share your confidence that North Korea is not going to attack either South Korea or Japan or the United States or our territories or states or parts of the United States once they have the capability,” he said.  “With every test, Kim Jong Un moves closer to his stated goal of a pre-emptive nuclear strike capability against American cities.”

Harris urged lawmakers to consider placing additional missile defense systems in Hawaii, saying that while current measures are sufficient, there is a chance they could be overwhelmed.

“Kim Jong Un is clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today, in my opinion,” he said.

In addition to deploying the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea, the U.S. also has sent the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its strike group to the Philippine Sea, where it has been doing military exercises with Japanese Self Defense Forces.

Harris told lawmakers he expects the strike group to continue moving north, adding the carrier’s fighters jets are currently just a two-hour flight from Pyongyang.

A U.S. submarine designed to carry 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles, the USS Michigan, is also docked currently in the South Korean port of Busan.

“The military forces we have are sending the right signal to Kim Jong Un,” Harris said.

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific also praised Chinese efforts to reign in North Korea, noting Beijing has tremendous economic leverage.

“I’m reasonably optimistic now that China is having an influence…working in the right direction,” Harris said. “And I believe Kim Jong Un has noticed that there’s a change afoot with regard to China, and I think that’s important.”

Still, Harris cautioned, “It’s early days.”

President Donald Trump invited the senators to the briefing, which will be conducted by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford.

Trump said earlier this week the “status quo in North Korea” is unacceptable and that the United Nations Security Council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Trump, Abe

Trump’s comments came after he made his latest round of separate telephone calls to the leaders of Japan, China and Germany to discuss concerns about North Korea.  

A 30-minute call (Sunday evening U.S. time/Monday morning in Asia) between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meant to increase pressure on Pyongyang not to engage in further provocative actions, but was not prompted by any significant change in the situation, according to officials in Tokyo.

Abe also said he and Trump agreed that a larger role in dealing with Pyongyang should be played by China.

Trump, Xi

Trump subsequently spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping about North Korea. The Chinese president said he hopes all sides avoid doing anything to worsen the tense situation on the Korean peninsula, according to the Xinhua news agency.

“The two leaders reaffirmed the urgency of the threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and committed to strengthen coordination in achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” according to a White House readout issued Monday.”

Trump and U.S. officials have repeatedly said all options remain “on the table” to deal with further North Korean provocations.

A former National Security Council official in President Barack Obama’s administration, Jon Wolfsthal, said in an interview with VOA relations between Washington and Pyongyang have “gone through cycles of tension and then relaxation” over the past 50 years.

“There is a great risk that it could get out of control and lead to open conflict,” Wolfsthal said.

VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin, VOA Senate Correspondent Michael Bowman, Milena Djurdjic and Ira Mellman contributed to this report.