STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, the entire United States Senate takes a field trip. They'll climb onto buses to ride a bit less than two miles from the Capitol to the White House. And in an office building next door to the White House with a room big enough for 100, they will meet the president's top military and intelligence officials and get a briefing on North Korea. Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley will attend, and he's in our studios. Good morning.
JEFF MERKLEY: Good morning. Good to be with you.
INSKEEP: Sorry you couldn't bring your other 99 colleagues for the briefing here.
MERKLEY: (Laughter) Exactly.
INSKEEP: But thanks for coming by. Does this meeting mean that something is about to happen with the United States and North Korea?
MERKLEY: No, it doesn't necessarily mean that. It certainly represents the fact that we're at a critical phase in the relationship with our allies in the region and the threat from North Korea. We have a lot of concerns about the possibility of the situation spiraling out of control. We want to find out key elements that are going on in terms of coordination with our allies, the conversation with China and certainly the plans for action by the United Nations.
INSKEEP: Help me understand what makes the situation any more urgent than it has been. I mean, I know that North Korea's talked about another nuclear test, but they've done nuclear tests. They're developing missiles, but they've been developing missiles. What's new here?
MERKLEY: What changes it all is that the president has indicated, sending a message, if you will, that the United States will respond to a missile test or to a nuclear test. It isn't clear what that response would be, which creates a sort of confusion that could lead to things spiraling out of control.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that what's different is that we have a different president?
MERKLEY: That - yes. Yes, the president...
INSKEEP: Meaning the threat, you don't think, is any different than it was?
MERKLEY: The president announced that the era of strategic patience is over. Now, it may - perhaps today he's going to announce a new Trump document in place of the strategic patience. But that's part of what we want to hear. The - right now, if there was a ballistic missile test, particularly a long-range ballistic missile test, how would the U.S. respond? Would that involve a strike on the North Korea homeland? How would North Korea respond?
Would it include the shelling of Seoul? If so, we're immediately into a war, which could transpire in a matter of hours. So we really have to be thinking through the action, reaction, in order to make sure we're pursuing our strategic objective without sliding or spiraling into a war.
INSKEEP: Let's remember what makes this so dangerous. Hitting North Korea is not like hitting Syria the other day, for example. You mentioned shelling Seoul. And the reason is because we've got an ally sitting right there next door.
MERKLEY: Ally next door and North Korea has nuclear weapons. And they're estimated by unclassified experts to - comments by an unclassified analysis by experts - they can produce a nuclear weapon every six to seven weeks. They have an inventory. They've certainly worked to make sure that inventory is protected from a potential - strikes by the United States. And that is a situation that changes the dynamic completely.
You don't need a ballistic missile to deliver a nuclear weapon. You can use a cargo carrier, for example. So it makes everything very - we have to be very, very careful.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who's paid a lot of attention to this, you're dealing with a regime that is very unpleasant, to say the least, and that, as you point out, has nuclear weapons. But presumably, if they ever used a nuclear weapon, the United States could respond by destroying the entire country, the entire regime. Is this a rational regime or rational enough that they would probably not take that step?
MERKLEY: Well, it's the uncertainty around that question. Certainly, North Korea wanted to have a nuclear program to operate as deterrence. Deterrence is most effective when you indicate a willingness to use a weapon. So now once you're in that position, you have the question of, well, under what circumstances would a country use a weapon? They want to deter a strike on their homeland. I think one thing that is very interesting here is that China has proceeded to put a ban on additional coal imports from Korea, which is a source of hard cash.
It's more - it's not really meaningful economically because they've already imported 90 percent of their quota for 2017. However, it sends a message. They've also indicated in the China Daily, which is a official newspaper, that the government in Pyongyang is off-track in thinking that the U.N. sanctions are aimed at its system of governance or at its leadership, then said they're aimed at its provocations in the nuclear world. So they're sending a pretty clear message. And China is the nation with the most leverage in this situation.
INSKEEP: And China's trying to say to North Korea, calm down, calm down here.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you one other thing. You're going to be at this meeting today, chairman of the joint chief of staff, director of National Intelligence, who knows, maybe the president himself will drop in. Suppose at this time, or another time soon, the president of the United States says, Senator, we need to strike North Korea, with all that that may entail that you just described. Do you have confidence in this president making that call?
MERKLEY: I have some substantial confidence in Mad Dog Mattis as a key adviser...
INSKEEP: James Mattis, the defense secretary.
MERKLEY: Yes. And I think that there are experienced hands that would be giving sound advice to the president. The president doesn't bring a background of his own. And so we're counting on key advisors really being extremely important in this situation.
INSKEEP: Ultimately, though, this is a presidential decision.
MERKLEY: Ultimately, it is. He is the commander in chief.
INSKEEP: OK. Senator Merkley, thanks very much for coming by.
MERKLEY: But let me also mention, it's not just a presidential decision because Congress does have the power to declare war. So that's a key point.
INSKEEP: OK. OK. And the Senate will be getting the word from the president's advisers today. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
MERKLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.