After returning from an official trip to the Korean Peninsula over the weekend, Combat Veteran and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) delivered a speech at Georgetown University on the dangers of rushing to war with North Korea and called on Congress to reclaim its constitutional prerogatives when it comes to matters of war and peace.
Duckworth stressed the importance of advancing diplomatic options as a way to mitigate the threat of war with north Korea, while also highlighting the importance of military readiness in preparation of escalating hostilities. Video of the speech is available online here.
“Much of what will unfold in the region during the coming months is still uncertain, but one thing was made clear: Kim Jong-un poses a serious and deadly threat to millions of people in the Korean peninsula and in the United States, and the prospect of war is far more dangerous—and far more likely—than many Americans realize,” said Duckworth.
“There are still diplomatic off-ramps to this crisis. As long as those off-ramps exist—and they do—it’s vital that the United States and her allies give diplomatic efforts every chance to succeed,” Duckworth continued. “However, the President seems set on taking a different route. With every threat, every reckless or contradictory tweet from the Commander-in-Chief of our military, we get a little bit further from a diplomatic solution and a little bit closer to war. The cavalier attitude with which the President tweets policy decisions and taunts foreign leaders – besides being beneath the dignity of his office – delegitimizes serious diplomatic efforts, and it undermines the efforts of our military while sowing confusion amongst our allies in an international system that is crying out for stability. Trump’s penchant for menacing tweets and careless threats isn’t just foolish; it’s irresponsible and extremely dangerous.”
“We need to restore accountability and transparency to how we entangle ourselves in these conflicts, as well as to countless other matters of war and peace. Congress must uphold its constitutional responsibilities, as it seems that some of our leaders may have forgotten about one very important part of the United States Constitution,” said Duckworth.
Senator Duckworth and U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), a fellow Veteran, spent four days meeting with America’s top military leaders and diplomats in the region, American servicemembers, Defense and Foreign Affairs Ministers from Japan and South Korea, South Korea’s top military commanders, North Korean defectors and human rights activists.
Duckworth has been outspoken about the need for the Trump administration to be clear-eyed about the costs of war with North Korea. Citing the lack of public debate before she deployed to Iraq, Duckworth recently wrote to President Trump asking him to share declassified military estimates of how many American servicemembers and innocent civilians would lose their lives if we went to war with North Korea – and she helped introduce legislation with Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to prevent President Trump from launching a preemptive strike against North Korea without authorization from Congress unless there is an imminent threat. The United States has nearly 80,000 servicemembers stationed in South Korea and Japan.
The full text of the speech is below as prepared for delivery:
Hi everyone, it’s great to be here.
Thank you, Aiden, for that nice introduction, and thank you to the Georgetown Lecture Fund and the Asian Studies Department for hosting this event.
As some of you may know, I decided to run for Congress after serving in the Reserve Forces for years to make sure the voices of my fellow servicemembers and Veterans are heard when lawmakers in Washington make decisions about our national security.
I lost my legs fighting in a war with which I didn’t agree, following orders from a President for whom I did not vote.
And though I was personally opposed to the Iraq War, I volunteered to join my unit when we were deployed… and I’m proud to have served my country.
Now that the drums of war are growing louder in Washington each day, it’s important that we all start thinking more seriously—more deeply—about both the reality of war with north Korea and the true cost of sending our servicemembers into danger overseas.
I want to share with you some of the insights from my recent visit to Korea this past weekend, some key takeaways about how we can best mitigate the threat of war through diplomatic relations as well as what Congress can and should do.
About 48 hours ago, I landed back on American soil after 4 days of meetings with U.S., Korean and Japanese military and government officials in South Korea, the Demilitarized Zone and Japan.
We spent hours discussing broad strategic and political challenges in the region, which included one very, very important goal: moving towards a de-nuclearized north Korea.
I also had the opportunity to meet with our Armed Forces’ senior most military officers in Korea to discuss the finer points of the state of our readiness for war, our non-combatant evacuation plans and the many challenges American, Korean and other allied forces would face in the event hostilities escalate.
Much of what will unfold in the region during the coming months is still uncertain, but one thing was made clear:
Kim Jong-un poses a serious and deadly threat to millions of people on the Korean peninsula, the Pacific theater and in the United States, and the prospect of war is far more dangerous—and far more likely—than many Americans realize.
That’s deeply troubling for many reasons, one of them being that I don’t think the American public and many of our leaders have a full grasp of what’s at stake here.
There is a lot more Congress could be doing to mitigate the threat of a catastrophic war and ensure that our military is prepared for whatever comes their way, and I’ll get to that in a few minutes.
First, I think it’s important to explain exactly what we’re dealing with on the Korean peninsula and with Kim Jong-un’s regime.
It’s important to get a sense of what a war in Korea actually means and just how many lives could be at risk.
There are roughly 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea and 25 million civilians from many nations, including our own, living in or around Seoul.
That’s more than half of South Korea’s entire population living in one concentrated area.
Pause to think about that number: 25 million human souls.
Every single one of which could be in danger if conflict breaks out…
…and I’m not just taking about a nuclear war.
North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear capabilities rightly receive most of our attention because of their ability to strike South Korea, as well as Japan and the U.S. homeland, but many Americans aren’t as aware of Kim Jong-un’s massive stockpile of conventional weapons aimed at South Korea which further exacerbate the security dilemma.
We don’t have intelligence about north Korea that’s as good as what we know about some other regions of the world.
However, we do know about their conventional weapons, which include significant long and medium-range rocket, artillery as well as chemical and biological capabilities, all of which are backed by a million soldier army fortified in several thousand underground facilities, tunnels and bunkers.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the military leaders I spoke to in Korea, his army is capable of killing between 30,000 and 300,000 people in a matter of days—using only conventional munitions.
That number only goes up if he uses nonconventional weapons—and it only accounts for the first few days of war.
Again, approximately 30,000 American troops in Korea, another 50,000 more stationed in Japan, countless more American civilians…300,000 human beings would die in a matter of days and millions more are at risk in the weeks and months after that.
When I first heard these figures, dozens of questions came to my mind immediately… many of which I discussed with military leaders this past week.
First of all, I want to know what they think north Korea’s source of power, what military folks call a “Center of Gravity,” is?
Do they think we can solve the north Korean nuclear threat by eliminating Kim Jong-un, or does their nuclear program continue and outlive him?
If we need ground forces to secure weapons of mass destruction, how many troops will we need?
With the limited intelligence that we have, do the generals on the ground even think it’s possible to secure all of north Korea’s nuclear, chemical and biological materiel?
What are the north Korean Critical Capabilities in the event of a limited war? What about an all-out war?
How would north Korean Offensive Cyber Operations be employed against the U.S. and South Korea in an unlimited kinetic war? What are the potential consequences to the Korean, American and global economies?
Then there is the prospect of a preemptive strike, or what some call a “bloody nose” strike.
Our President and some of our leaders in Congress seem to believe that to be a viable option.
However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said that the only way to locate and secure north Korea’s nuclear weapons is with a ground invasion, and from what I learned from the generals on the ground, we will likely need a ground invasion just to secure their conventional weapons, like artillery pieces.
I wanted to hear them address the many operational and logistical challenges we’d face in that situation.
I’ll list a few:
Do we have enough pre-positioned stocks of critical materiel that we would be required to draw upon in a ground war? After years of raiding our stocks to supply operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, are these supply stores 100%?
With on-going requirements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, do we have enough lift support – aerial and maritime – to move troops into the theater? If we have to divert resources, how does that impact on-going operations in other theaters?
Do we have enough munitions? Do we even have enough missiles, rockets and bombs to support a war plan? What about fuel?
How are we going to handle a non-combatant evacuation of tens of millions of people? How are we going to de-conflict these operations with China and Japan? Or try to evacuate their nationals out of Korea??
Do we have visibility on the north’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapon sites? How do we secure these weapons in order to prevent their proliferation?
These are just a few of the many operational challenges we would have to confront, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the challenges we’d face if they strike U.S. soil.
Then we have to consider the aftermath of war.
We know the number of deaths would be staggering, but we haven’t talked about those on the peninsula who aren’t killed, but left in bombed out cities—or the countless civilians who will be injured.
What provisions have been made by the U.S. for Humanitarian Aid for the Republic of Korea and Korean people living north of the DMZ?
What food and medicines can we draw on to minimize human suffering on the peninsula?
What kind of resources will be required over the coming decades to take care of Veterans who return home with service-related injuries?
There are a lot of unanswered questions, but the reality is that the answers can mean the difference between life and death for millions of people.
Yet, I’m still waiting to hear our Commander-in-Chief and many of my colleagues in the Senate have an honest debate about them.
Meanwhile, many Americans aren’t in touch with just how close we are to war.
I’ve now met with several officials from the Pentagon, in the intelligence community and many stationed on the Korean peninsula and the warning signs that the military has shifted to a more aggressive posture are clear:
We recently sent the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine, to South Korea.
In October, we sent three U.S. Navy nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carriers—the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Nimitz and USS Theodore Roosevelt—to the Western Pacific.
B-52s have now joined our B-1 and B-2 bombers in Guam – all three types of bombers are now in the Pacific.
Across the country, the Army is practicing how to activate mobilization centers, which help facilitate the global rapid deployment of troops.
The Army is buying more bridging equipment to navigate north Korea’s crumbling infrastructure.
And they’re training Soldiers to fight in the same kind of tunnels that are buried underground throughout north Korea.
And I know the military’s job is to be fully ready for any contingency, and I’m not saying they are going to war, but it’s painfully clear from my visit to the DMZ that we shouldn’t ignore the signals these actions send either.
We know that north Korea and our allies in the region are paying attention to them.
However, another thing that was made clear to me in Korea, is that there are still diplomatic off-ramps on this road to war.
We’re not yet in an inevitable march toward open conflict on the Korean peninsula.
As long as those off-ramps exist, it’s vital that the United States and her allies give diplomatic efforts every chance to succeed.
In order to see us through this crisis, we must allow the diplomats time and space to operate and we must remain unified with our allies in our shared strategic goals for the peninsula.
We cannot allow North Korea to skirt the recently adopted U.N. Security Council sanctions.
These are the most biting sanctions adopted to date and we must ensure our allies – and other nations including Russia and China in particular – are fully enforcing them.
The last two rounds of diplomatic talks regarding the Winter Olympics and Paralympics at the Freedom House are a welcome development. North-South engagement must be encouraged.
Whether such talks can lead to something else, maybe even peace, only time will tell.
However, we cannot allow the north to use this limited engagement as a way to split the U.S. – South Korea relationship… which I believe Kim Jong-un will attempt to do.
We should have no doubt that he seeks to drive a wedge in the regional alliance structure.
North Korea has a long history of using such diplomatic entreaties as cover while they further develop their nuclear and ballistic missile capability.
We cannot afford to be naïve here. North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development continues to evolve and their rhetoric remains hostile.
While engagement is welcomed, we must remain clear-eyed about north Korean intentions and activities… and remain committed to our allies.
That means we have to maintain the strength of our military and of our ironclad military alliance with the Republic of Korea.
Key to our readiness and the success of our mission is our relationship with that nation and the unique joint relationship our militaries enjoy.
It’s a relationship forged in blood, in training and in common goals.
The Republic of Korea forces are highly professional, well-trained and understand implicitly the threat of north Korea.
If we need them, they are indeed ready to fight—which is good because even if they hope for peace, they can be called on at any moment.
During my trip, I had the chance to speak with some of the troops on the first line of defense at the DMZ.
Those 19, 20, 21-year-olds are standing spitting distance from north Korean soldiers on the other side with no barrier between them.
Halfway around the globe, these warriors are quite literally holding the line in one of the most dangerous places on earth.
To them, the potential for war isn’t just a possibility, it’s a reality they live and breathe every day.
While we hope for peace, we must maintain our military readiness and remain prepared for a war.
Over the weekend, I also spent time with the commander of U.S. Forces Korea and the commander of the 8th Army.
The two of them are the principle operational elements on the Korean peninsula responsible for executing war plans and effectively integrating the American and South Korean forces.
The 8th Army’s motto is “ready to fight tonight,” but it is not said with the hope or wish for war.
Rather, what comes across most is the intense desire to avoid war—because they truly understand the consequences of what it would look like and the enormity of the challenges we would face.
This is not something that just comes across from U.S. military leaders, but is also something I heard from our South Korean military counterparts as well.
Nobody on the peninsula wants war – not the U.S. military, nor the Korean military.
However, they must remain ready.
While most Americans cannot conceive of all of the operational nuances of war on the peninsula, that’s what the 8th Army is doing.
They are ensuring they are ready for operations across the spectrum of potential conflict including conducting non-combatant evacuations; securing nuclear, chemical and biological weapon sites, executing the logistical movement of materiel and troops, and integrating all U.S. and ROK forces on the battlefield in order to repel a north Korean attack.
Sec. Mattis recently said that “the military’s role is to hold the peace one more day so the diplomats can do their job.”
However, while our military and the Republic of Korea forces work together to maintain readiness so diplomatic off-ramps remain viable, the President seems set on taking a different route.
With every threat – every reckless or contradictory tweet from the Commander-in-Chief of our military – we get a little bit further from a diplomatic solution and a little bit closer to war.
The cavalier attitude with which the President tweets policy decisions and taunts foreign leaders – besides being beneath the dignity of his office – delegitimizes serious diplomatic efforts,
and it undermines the efforts of our military while sowing confusion amongst our allies in an international system that is crying out for stability.
Bottom line: Trump’s penchant for menacing tweets and careless threats isn’t just foolish; it’s irresponsible and extremely dangerous.
Anyone who has served in our nation’s military—including those currently stationed in the DMZ—understands that the threat of war, let alone nuclear war, is not something to take lightly.
There is no such thing as a surgical strike or “bloody nose” strike when it comes to north Korea—as much as the President and his warmongering allies might wish there is.
They should remember that President George W. Bush’s administration told the American people the Iraq war would be over in 2 weeks—and we all know how accurate that assessment was.
Once you strike north Korea, you’re talking about a ground invasion.
The sad reality is that Trump’s reckless words put our troops at risk and are actually helping Kim Jong-un’s regime.
He’s basically just writing Kim Jong Un’s propaganda for him.
They don’t even have to use scare tactics and Photoshop to claim America wants to destroy them anymore; they can just show the citizens living under Kim’s tyranny one of Trump’s tweets or a video of his boasts and say “look at this.”
Trump may be acting irresponsibly, but that doesn’t mean Congress should also.
Unfortunately, Congress has skirted its responsibility to make decisions on matters of war and peace for decades.
Meanwhile, Presidents from both parties have seized more and more power over those decisions, sending our military men and women off to war as Congress sits idly by. Even the debate in Iraq ended in an UMF and not a declaration war.
I get it: wars aren’t always popular and voting for them can be politically risky.
But that risk can never be as significant as the risks faced by our servicemembers serving in harm’s way—and failing to take hard votes like that flies in the face of what our nation’s founders envisioned the role of Congress to be.
We need to restore accountability and transparency to how we entangle ourselves in these conflicts, as well as to countless other matters of war and peace.
Congress must uphold its constitutional responsibilities, as it seems that some of our leaders may have forgotten about one very important part of the United States Constitution:
Article I clearly vests in Congress the responsibilities to declare war, establish an Armed Forces and do everything necessary and proper to carry out its responsibility to defend the nation.
But that doesn’t excuse Congress spending decades taking the easier route of just letting the President take the heat—and now we’re here.
One of Congress’s most solemn responsibilities is deciding when and how we choose to send Americans into combat.
But we’ve failed to do that.
Not only in the nearly two decades since 9/11, but for almost 80 years dating back to World War II.
Enough is enough.
In order to go to war, the President must ask Congress for approval and Congress must do its job and have an honest debate about what going to war really means for our servicemembers, our taxpayers, our national security and the future we want for our children.
That’s why I introduced legislation with Senator Murphy to prevent the President from launching a preemptive strike against north Korea without authorization from Congress unless there is an imminent threat.
We need the Commander-in-Chief to show a steady hand and sound judgement, not to engage in irresponsible and dangerous verbal attacks that only serve to escalate an already dangerous situation.
The truth is, we need to have the tough conversations about the true costs of deployment for our troops stationed all across the world.
For me a glaring example is what happened in the run up to the Iraq War—it’s clear to me that we are at risk of making the same mistakes with regard to north Korea.
Though we haven’t officially declared war in 80 years, Congress passed something called an Authorization for Use of Military Force—or AUMF—in 2001 to go after the perpetrators of 9/11 and another in 2002 to begin the war in Iraq.
That was over 15 years ago.
Beginning next year, there could be American troops in Afghanistan who literally weren’t alive when 9/11 happened.
And now, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is proposing an indefinite U.S. military presence in Syria—without even pretending that the administration needs to seek authorization from Congress.
Yet, here we are, still relying on those same old authorizations without public debate on a declaration of war about our objectives or what we’re still asking of those we’ve sent into harm’s way.
Our troops downrange need to know they have the moral support—and legal backing—of their country.
But Congress hasn’t given them that.
I’ve been saying this for years—since before this President took office—and I’ll say it again: we are in desperate need of a long-overdue debate regarding a clear set of objectives our military can take into the field.
We need to restore Congress’ power over the President in matters of war and peace.
The President is our Commander-in-Chief, but he is not our king, and he needs to come to Congress and make the case to the American people, as our founders intended, if he wants to go war.
Our servicemembers represent the strongest, most professional men and women in the world.
Our nation would not be the greatest democracy on the face of the planet without their sacrifices.
Trump may think he’s asserting our nation’s strength when he blindly threatens our enemies… but he couldn’t be more wrong.
Our strength doesn’t come from the President thumping his chest or flaunting our nuclear weapons… it comes from our people, our values and the global belief that America stands by her word.
It comes from the hard work, the compassion, the courage of Americans serving their country in and out of uniform.
And we cannot afford to take that shared sense of sacrifice for granted.
To do so would be a disservice to our Constitution and those in uniform who risk their lives to defend it.