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Wednesday, March 21 Local

Scientist: ‘No viable military option’ in N. Korea

GREENWICH — The ongoing tensions between the United States and North Korea, giving rise to fears about the potential for nuclear war, were addressed in Greenwich Wednesday by a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Union has heavily criticized President Donald Trump’s statements toward North Korea, but Wednesday’s discussion also focused on the broader subject of presidential power to wage nuclear war.

“If North Korea actually launched a nuclear weapon on a U.S. territory, do you want one person making the decision about that to do?” asked Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union’s Global Security Program, who was in town to speak to the Greenwich Retired Men’s Association. “I would argue you do not want one person making this horrific decision ever.”

Gronlund suggested a better policy would be to require that the decision to launch nukes be made by a three-person panel made up of the president, vice president and speaker of the House of Representatives — the top three positions in the presidential chain of succession. She said it would be preferable to have those three instead of the secretary of Defense or secretary of State.

“All of these people will have been elected,” Gronlund said. “They’re not appointed. They are independent of the president because they can’t be fired.”

RMA member Frederic Brooks questioned the effectiveness of a three-person process in a time of crisis, noting the potential for the decision to become entangled in politics.

Gronlund said she did not believe that would happen. Given the ramifications of nuclear war, the matter would transcend the party politics that bog down other issues such as health care and tax policy, she suggested.

Gronlund pointed to legislation being assembled in Congress that would require congressional approval before the United States could launch nuclear missiles as a first strike.

During her remarks, Gronlund gave an overview of the country’s nuclear capabilities, including its land- and submarine-launched missiles, plus bombs and air-launched cruise missiles. The country is slated to replace its arsenal with new versions, a process she said will cost about $1.2 trillion.

“This sends a signal to the rest of the world that we are in it for the long haul,” Gronlund said. “We are very committed to our nuclear weapons and it sort of undercuts the message we should be giving, which is we should all be on a downward trajectory.”

She discussed the START treaty agreed to by President Barack Obama and Russia seven years ago, which called for cuts in both countries’ arsenals, and Trump’s seeming desire to get out of the pact and build the country’s nuclear arsenal. She predicted the country would not withdraw, though, because the Department of Defense is fully behind the treaty, and Congress would have fund a build-up.

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She advocated for negotiation with North Korea and suggested starting by sending an emissary. Gronlund said it is a mistake to believe negotiation is impossible because the Clinton administration tried it and created momentum before Bill Clinton left office.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might be dreadful, she said, but she doesn’t believe he would do something that would lead to him being overthrown.

“Negotiation is absolutely necessary because there is no viable military option,” Gronlund said. “We do not have the ability to do a surgical strike and Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is less than 100 kilometers from the border and North Korea has lots of short range artillery that can do a lot of damage in Seoul. It would really be a disaster.”