- - Tuesday, June 26, 2018


As an A-10 squadron commander in the Air Force, I was required to be ready to deploy my 24 Warthogs and team anywhere in the world within 24 hours, including the Korean Peninsula. As it turns out, my first foray into North Korea was not in a fighter jet; it was on foot, as part of the bipartisan congressional delegation I led to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea over Memorial Day weekend.

Inside the truce village of Panmunjom, where the ceasefire to the Korean War was signed 65 years ago and just west of the location where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un first shook hands in April, I took my first steps across the DMZ — a line that divides freedom from tyranny. A few hours later, Mr. Moon crossed over to secretly meet with Mr. Kim. Less than three weeks later, President Trump met with Mr. Kim in Singapore for their historic summit.

I wanted to go to the DMZ to get a first-hand understanding of the situation on the ground and see for myself the threat our troops face every day. I also wanted to gain insight from American and South Korean officials and experts as to whether there really is hope for achieving complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization — referred to by South Korean officials as “C-VID.”

After speaking with top U.S. and South Korean leaders and assessing our military plans and readiness to “fight tonight” if called, I got my answer: This time is different.

Mr. Trump has used all elements of national power — including diplomatic, economic, informational and military strength — to create this historic opening and achieve this objective. Informed by the patterns of the past, he led the international community in a maximum pressure campaign to choke off the flow of resources to the Kim regime. I am confident that Mr. Trump and his extraordinary team of advisers, including John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Gen. James Mattis, will not accept anything that remotely looks like the dynamics we have seen out of the regime historically.

Despite the challenges caused by years of military budget cuts and readiness challenges, our troops and leadership on the Korean Peninsula have remained dedicated, innovative and ready warriors. I am so proud of our military men and women who are truly ready to defend our ally, South Korea, alongside the Republic of Korea’s very able troops, from any aggression from the North.

At every meeting on our trip, I asked the question: “What’s in it for Kim?” Knowing that opening his country to the international community presents a risk he’ll lose his grip on power internally, I was skeptical that he would truly be willing to accept C-VID. (Remember, this is the ruler who murdered his uncle, half-brother and thousands of others to consolidate power.) But after this trip, the answer became clear: Despite all the rhetoric, Mr. Kim is in an extraordinary position of weakness with limited choices, and he knows it.

North Korea is not even close to being a near peer to South Korea or, much less, the United States. It remains a poor, isolated, near-failed state. One South Korean official explained it this way: Think of North Korea like a medieval monarchy. Its per capita income is just 5 percent of its neighbor to the south. Mr. Kim reportedly couldn’t even pay for his hotel room in Singapore. The maximum pressure campaign has worked, and we now have our boot on his neck; he is out of realistic options.

Mr. Trump was gracious to not belittle or embarrass Mr. Kim in their face-to-face meeting, and I believe he has worked hard to make Mr. Kim look (and feel) legitimate to show he is willing to help him save face. But make no mistake — behind closed doors, they both know that Mr. Trump can and will crank up the pressure even more, and that North Korea would be crushed in any confrontation.

The whole idea of deterrence is to convince your enemy that you are willing and able to make it so painful for them to continue on a threatening or bellicose course, that they change their behavior. Mr. Trump has demonstrated his willingness and ability to apply unprecedented pressure, with all options on the table, to stop Mr. Kim from holding a U.S. city hostage with a nuke. As a result, we are now negotiating from a position of tremendous strength.

Thanks to the president’s resolve and leadership, we now have a historic opportunity to rid the Korean Peninsula of the threat of nuclear weapons and see a different future. The months ahead are crucial, and what happens next is totally up to Mr. Kim; but after my trip, I now believe what we’re seeing unfold has the potential to be a case study of deterrence in action.

I hope Mr. Kim is serious about accepting this life line from Mr. Trump, because this time, the U.S. is deadly serious, too. Take it from someone who’s been ready to deploy at a moment’s notice and recently crossed the DMZ — this time, it’s different.

• Martha McSally is a Republican U.S. representative from Arizona.

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