Congressional Republicans yesterday reacted to North Korea’s series of test-firings by touting their party’s support for missile defense and praising their expansion of the program’s budget and scope.
It is uncertain whether Congress, on a one-week break, will take legislative action, but aides for Republican leaders noted the unanimous passage of a Senate measure increasing funding for the U.S. missile defense system beyond the initial Pentagon request.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said on CNN yesterday that “at some point, if diplomacy doesn’t work, it’s all physics.”
“If you have a missile in the air, and it’s coming toward one of your cities, the only way to stop it at that point is not with words, but with interceptors,” he said.
Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the North Korean launches were a reminder “of the need for an effective missile defense system.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, last week sent a letter to Mr. Bush highlighting the Senate’s unanimous approval of $145 million more on missile defense than the Pentagon requested. The increased funding was approved as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, which also called for building more interceptors in addition to the sites in Alaska and California.
Mr. Frist said those sites are positioned to deal with North Korean missiles and argued that a third site in Europe would enable the United States to intercept a missile launched from Iran.
“The threat from Iran is only going to grow in the years ahead,” Mr. Frist said in the letter. “We need to take steps now to prepare to deal with that threat.”
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the missile test exposes North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il as a “paper tiger.”
North Korea “does not have the capacity to do any short-term damage to the United States of America or Japan,” he said on CBS’ “Early Show” yesterday. “It is frighteningly naive the way they act. That’s the part that worries me about them, not their nuclear program and missiles at the moment.”
Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, visited North Korea twice last year. He said understanding Pyongyang’s intentions is a “herculean task.”
“If the North Korean leadership believes that today’s test will bring them greater rewards from the civilized world, they have miscalculated profoundly,” he said.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the United States should keep a close eye on Pyongyang’s actions and urged a diplomatic solution.
“North Korea is playing a highly dangerous game,” he said.
Several key Capitol Hill Democrats and at least one Republican called for direct bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea, but the administration rejected that idea.
“It has always been my view that if the North Koreans want to talk to the United States directly, we should not turn that opportunity down,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Mrs. Feinstein said she supports U.S. talks with North Korea and four of the region’s key powers, although Pyongyang withdrew from these six-party talks. “The six-party talks are fine, but it makes no sense to me that we ratchet up the isolation, which only moves Pyongyang closer to overt hostility,” she said.
The House’s top Democrat echoed Mrs. Feinstein’s call for bilateral talks while issuing a sharp warning to North Korean leaders.
“We must use every possible tool to stop North Korea’s unacceptable, provocative actions including six-party, multilateral and bilateral diplomatic negotiations,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the more liberal Republicans in the Senate, agreed with the Democrats.
“It is my hope that the United States will negotiate directly with the North Koreans … and try to resolve our differences in a dignified way, and I think that will happen,” he said.
President Bush, however, told reporters that “it’s more effective for them to hear it from a group of nations rather than one nation.”