Sen. Tom Cotton is warning that North Korea isn’t interested in relinquishing its nuclear weapons and can’t be trusted to negotiate in good faith, just as President Trump is preparing to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without preconditions.
“We should be taking more steps than we are right now to be ready to fight a war, if that’s what’s necessary, with North Korea,” the Arkansas Republican said in an interview with “Behind Closed Doors,” a Washington Examiner podcast. Cotton, 40, is a combat veteran of the Iraq war.
Cotton, a close ally of the White House, discussed the matter one day before Trump surprised the world by announcing plans to hold a summit with Kim, currently planned for May. The administration is trying to force North Korea to dismantle a nuclear weapons program that threatens U.S. allies in Asia and could soon endanger the American mainland.
Trump’s approach to subduing North Korea revolves around a strategy the White House dubs “maximum pressure.” The administration has led an international effort to enforce tough diplomatic and economic sanctions against Pyongyang, while keeping the threat of military action on the table.
The president is relying heavily on China and its leader, Xi Jinping, to squeeze North Korea and create the ultimate pressure for the rogue communist nation to denuclearize. At issue is whether China is interested in help the U.S. — and whether overtures from Pyongyang are sincere.
The statement Cotton issued after Trump announced his potentially historic summit with Kim suggested that he remains suspicious. He elaborated on in his views regarding Beijing and North Korea in his interview with Behind Closed Doors.
“For years, China said they wanted a denuclearized North Korean peninsula. I think they’re lying about that. They obviously have no interest in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula because as long as North Korea is a nuclear power, it is the primary focus of the United States in Northeast Asia,” Cotton said. “Meanwhile, China runs wild, building islands in the South China Sea, intimidating Taiwan, oppressing its own people.”
North Korea’s nuclear program has been a conundrum for previous administrations. Trump’s predecessors tried to a mixture of strong-arming the regime, and negotiations, to entice Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons. Both Kim and his late father, Kim Jong Il, were impervious to pressure, even as sanctions crippled the North Korean economy and the quality of life of its citizens.
The elder Kim regularly forged agreements to halt the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for financial incentives or aid, only to break those agreements.
Cotton said he believes Trump has learned from the past; he emphasized that nothing he has seen from the North Koreans indicates anything has changed “because of their long history of manipulating diplomacy in their own advantage to gain concessions or buy time for their nuclear program.”
“The last three administrations, at a minimum, have been Charlie Brown to North Korea’s Lucy [with the football,] in that they’ve granted concessions for the mere act of sitting down to talk,” Cotton said. “If Kim Jong Un or one of his senior envoys wants to sit down w/ the United States, we should listen to them. But if they demand any kind of suspension of sanctions or food aid or financial aid in advance, we obviously should not do that.”
Trump has agreed to accept Kim’s invitation to hold bilateral talks without concessions from North Korea. But he has similarly declined to any relaxing of sanctions, and U.S. military exercises in the region will continue as scheduled.
Cotton said that only the credible threat of war is likely to “compel” China to crack down on North Korea, a client state of Beijing, sufficient to force Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
To do that, the senator, who serves on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees and has Trump’s ear, recommended that the U.S. take concrete steps to prove it’s willing to follow through with the military option.
“We need to take steps like beginning to stop the deployment of military dependents to the Korean Peninsula and gradually removing dependents from the Korean peninsula,” Cotton said. “Stockpiling ammunition … fuel stores and so forth. We need to make it perfectly clear to PyongYang and Beijing that we are prepared and willing to fight a war stop North Korea from threatening us with nuclear weapons.”
Behind Closed Doors is a monthly podcast from the Washington Examiner. It's available at washingtonexaminer.com and iTunes.