SALT LAKE CITY — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is not insane, says Utah Rep. Chris Stewart. But he poses the most pressing threat to the United States as he pushes forward with plans to develop missiles capable of reaching the U.S. with nuclear warheads.
"We just can't ignore the reality that North Korea is a real and meaningful threat to not only U.S. security but frankly to global security and global civility," Stewart, R-Utah, said Wednesday in response to questions by the Deseret News editorial board in Salt Lake City.
North Korea came into clear focus again this week when President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations and went all in against the nation he said he is willing to "destroy" if changes are not made.
"The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea," Trump said Tuesday. "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary," Trump said.
Stewart said that while he may have chosen different words to make his point, he was "grateful" the president took such a strong stance in his remarks to the U.N. general assembly.
Stewart referenced conversations he's had with Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the Pacific Fleet, speaking of the global challenges facing America: "He said North Korea is the most dangerous situation, China is the most complicated situation that we face, and Russia is the existential threat that we face," he said, noting Russia's nuclear ability to destroy our current way of life.
Stewart's expertise stems from his military background as a 14-year pilot in the Air Force, and from his current position as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
He said previous diplomatic policies undertaken by prior presidential administrations have attempted to preclude North Korea from researching and developing nuclear capabilities, but those policies failed. Trump's hardline approach is now the correct tack to take as a prelude to continued efforts to find a diplomatic solution.
"I think he is right in that policy and I support him in that policy," he said. "The world changes dramatically and our ability to influence events in the region are changed dramatically if we fail again."
Stewart said military action should be "the very last option," but it must remain an option and one that other countries understand is real. Stewart said it was the approach Trump took with Syria, when he approved the launch of 60 cruise missiles on enemy targets in response to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons.
"That was noticed not just by Bashar al-Asaad, it was noticed by other leaders," he said. Recalling a recent trip to China, Stewart said that Chinese leaders told him they actually believe Trump when he says he will not let North Korea have intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
"Kim Jong Un, I imagine, had the same kind of conversation as well as did the Japanese leaders, the South Korean leaders and others in the region," he said. "A military option has to be a final option, but it has to be an option with credibility."
Stewart listed three approaches that now must happen to avoid a military conflict. First there needs to be "an intense diplomatic effort." He said the United States is at the beginning of that effort, not the end. Second, he said there needs to be an enhanced ability to secure the region strategically, "primarily through an enhanced missile defense shield. And thirdly, we need to engage our allies," Stewart said.
"China has an important role to play, but so do our other allies," he said. "The combination of those (hopefully) will be able to convince Kim Jong Un that he can't actually proceed down this path."
When asked directly if the U.S. is headed toward war, Stewart said:
"I'm not in my backyard building a bomb shelter. ... I don't think we're going to be at war with North Korea. I hope we're never at war with North Korea."