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The White House Briefs The Senate On North Korea


The U.S. Senate took a field trip of sorts today. All 100 members were invited to the White House for a classified intelligence briefing on North Korea, so this afternoon senators piled on a bus and headed down Pennsylvania Avenue. I spoke with Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just after that White House briefing ended.

Senator Murphy, welcome to the program.

CHRIS MURPHY: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So your fellow senator, Chris Coons, called today's briefing sobering. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker called it OK. Got the sense there was nothing new there. Did you hear anything new out of this meeting that sheds light on the urgency and focus of this administration on North Korea?

MURPHY: I didn't hear anything terribly new. I think the intent was to bring the Senate over to the White House both as a PR show of force by the White House but also a demonstration of how serious this administration is about the North Korean threat. You know, the fact of the matter is they are trying to put all their cards on the table with China right now to get them to change their disposition on North Korea.

And they did outline some military options today that, you know, ultimately I don't think are going to be dispositive on the question but show that they are serious about looking at all of the options available to them. But no, there was not a lot of new information. Maybe there was no new information today. But they clearly have this at the top of their foreign policy agenda.

CORNISH: Now, where they did discuss strategy, was it an emphasis on military options or diplomatic ones?

MURPHY: I think they clearly are of the mind that first you have to pursue all political, diplomatic and economic means. And, you know, we've known for a long time that China is really the only diplomatic way to get to North Korea. And, you know, to me, Trump has been a little bit too ham-handed, a little bit too public in the way that he's signaled to China that he'll be willing to give them lots of treats and carrots if they agree to get tough with North Korea. But he's not fundamentally wrong to pursue a path through Beijing. Ultimately...

CORNISH: Right. And we should say the Obama administration spent a lot of time trying to get China to do something about North Korea. What more can any White House do to get China to act?

MURPHY: Well, I think you've got to build an international consensus around sanctions against North Korea like the Obama administration did against Iran. And right now I think there's some doubt as to whether the Trump administration has the credibility or the personnel to do that. So it can be China, but it also can be increased international pressure. That's predominantly what they were talking about today. A lot of us just doubt whether they have the capability to do that.

CORNISH: What's the bigger concern that you're hearing about, a long-range missile from North Korea or the further development of their nuclear weapons program?

MURPHY: Well, ultimately, you know, we are responsible for defending our own homeland first, and that threat comes from an ICBM. Who knows how long they are from getting an ICBM? Some people think...

CORNISH: And that's a long-range missile.

MURPHY: ...Two years, five years. You know, it's years away. But remember, we do have a defense treaty with South Korea. And so if there was an escalation of tensions along that border it could cause us to have to defend our treaty allies. So, you know, that's what many of us worry about is that this tough talk from Trump ultimately sets off a series of provocations on that border which draws the United States into a war. That's something that I think they've got to be careful about when they're gauging their rhetoric.

CORNISH: And finally, reports that the U.S. is considering adding North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Did you hear that today?

MURPHY: We did not talk about that. You know, I think you have to put all of your, you know, nonmilitary tools on the table. If that's something that can ramp up pressure on Pyongyang then I think that that's something that, you know, I think Democrats and Republicans should be talking about.

CORNISH: Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. Thank you for speaking with us.

MURPHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.