Heading to Korea, Sen. Merkley cites ‘extraordinary risk of potential war’

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and five other members of Congress embarked Thursday on a week-long diplomatic mission to Asia to ease tensions with North Korea. They hope to aide peacekeeping efforts in a region marred by nuclear proliferation and escalating brinksmanship.

“At this moment, the relationship between the United States and North Korea is extremely tense,” said Merkley in an exclusive phone interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive from Tokyo. “It represents an extraordinary risk of potential war. A miscalculation could result in extraordinarily damaging circumstances.”

Merkley, Oregon’s junior Senate member and a Democrat, said delegates plan to meet state and military leaders in Japan, South Korea and China. Visits are scheduled to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Korean states and a China-North Korea border area.

Besides Merkley, delegation members include Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.; and Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo.

Their trip comes as Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, has ramped up his military’s testing of nuclear missiles. American and allied forces have also bolstered their numbers in the region, fueling nervous tempers.

Hostilities have also risen via direct threats exchanged between Kim and President Trump. Last week, the Korean leader threatened to launch a missile attack against the American territory of Guam; Trump responded by saying Kim’s regime would be met with unmatched “fire and fury” if threats did not cease. Trump also posted a tweet that seemed to indicate the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

In his phone interview conducted when it was Friday afternoon in Oregon and Saturday morning in Japan, Merkley referenced the tweet and criticized Trump’s demeanor as “cavalier.”

Asked if he believes Trump administration and Pentagon officials can stave off a war with the aggressive Kim regime, Merkley — often a Trump critic — was glum.

“I am extremely nervous. I lack any form of confidence in the president’s judgment,” he said. “I do believe that potential errors he might make — I’m hoping — would be corrected by seasoned policy and military leaders that surround him.”

A member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a subcommittee that drafts policy on East Asian affairs, including non-proliferation, Merkley said there is no easy solution to sky-high tensions. Regional issues are intertwined and interests compete, he said.

South Korean and Japanese leaders are “very nervous,” Merkley said, over the possibility of war. Many could die in those countries should North Korea launch a missile barrage in their direction.

“Tens of thousands of people could die in less than an hour,” Merkley said.

Relations with China only complicate matters, he said. Chinese leaders are uncomfortable that the U.S. is discussing use of missile defense technology in the region, he said.

And although China has “enormous leverage” over North Korea — it could stop smuggling of goods and currency over their shared borders, Merkley said — it is reticent to use its power to stop Kim’s pursuit of advanced nuclear arms.

Merkley said Chinese officials have signaled that they fear pressuring the Kim regime because the North Korean state could collapse, triggering a flood of Korean refugees into China.

Chinese officials also fear a reunified Korean state that could be friend to American interests and foe to the Chinese, Merkley said.

Most foreign policy experts are resigned that there is no pre-emptive strike that would benefit American interests, Merkley said. That’s why he and members of Congress continue to seek what he described as “policy insights” to inform U.S. strategy.

Asked if North Korea possesses a nuclear missile that can reach the mainland U.S. and Oregon, Merkley said the regime’s ballistic missile technology is still lagging. But, he added, “Their technology is advancing very rapidly.”