As a Member of Congress, I am responsible for the interests of South Texas in Washington, DC and for ensuring the safety of the American citizenry from global threats.

This fall, I am engaged in diplomatic efforts in Japan and in the Middle East. The North Korean regime currently poses one of the most critical threats to the United States and to our allies, Japan and South Korea. I recently traveled to the region, and I want to share what I learned.

The modern U.S.-Japan relationship was established after World War II. Against the backdrop of hostilities in the Pacific Theater, which included the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and nuclear bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan adopted a new Constitution in 1947 that blocked the establishment of land, sea, or air forces. The U.S. and Japan then signed a Treaty of Mutual Cooperation, under which the U.S. maintains a military presence in Japan and has a binding obligation to defend Japan against any foreign adversaries. In support of that obligation, more than 50,000 U.S. troops are permanently stationed in Japan.

The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who serve in Japan come from communities across the U.S. I visited Yokosuka, homeport of the Seventh Fleet, where I was briefed on the mishap off the coast of Japan involving the USS Fitzgerald, which resulted in the deaths of seven sailors, including Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez of Weslaco, Texas. The following month another Japanese-based ship, the USS McCain, collided with an oil tanker, killing ten service members.

These deaths serve as tragic reminders of the sacrifices our military forces make in defense of our nation; the incidents are also troubling signs about the state of military readiness. I raised concerns about the collisions and other issues that impact military members and their families while meeting with U.S. commanders in Japan.

While the governments of Japan and the United States continue to maintain close relations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed amending the country’s Constitution and transforming the Japanese Self-Defense Forces into a full national defense organization, replacing US troops currently pledged to defend Japan.  Changing the Constitution would require the approval of two-thirds of the parliament and a public referendum. To further his effort, the Prime Minister has dissolved the parliament and called for a snap election to be held on October 22. By moving up the date of the planned national election, Prime Minister Abe is seeking to capitalize on his current support and gain additional allies in the legislative body to further his priorities.

These actions come at a time of great uncertainty in the region, particularly on the Korean Peninsula where North Korea is escalating a war of words, threatening to attack its neighbors and the United States. The angry language from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has been backed by provocative missile launches over Japan and the detonation of a hydrogen bomb on September 3.

In my meetings with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and other national leaders, the main focus was the growing threat posed by North Korea. Because of their proximity to North Korea, the people of Japan and South Korea are at imminent risk of attack, and the demonstration of nuclear capability elevates the risk for mass casualties. A North Korean military attack on South Korea could result in 20,000 deaths per day, and a nuclear strike would be catastrophic with a blast much more powerful than the Hiroshima bombing, which killed over 80,000 people instantly.

With so much at stake, traveling to Japan helped me gain a deeper insight into the complex politics of Eastern Asia and the importance to our national security. It was an honor to be invited to participate in this diplomatic mission, and I will use my experience to ensure that the United States Congress does what is necessary to protect our troops, our citizens, and our allies.

Editor’s Note: In the main image accompanying the above guest column, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela is pictured with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.