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The Peninsula

Growing Congressional Assertiveness on U.S. Foreign Policy: Implications for Korea

Published February 1, 2019

By Phil Eskeland

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate voted by a wide bipartisan margin for an amendment expressing opposition to a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.  Nearly every Republican Senator and more than half of the Senate Democratic Conference supported this amendment.  This vote comes after confusing pronouncements from the Trump Administration that U.S. troops would soon be leaving Syria and Afghanistan.  It also comes just one week after another legislative effort, offered by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), to oppose the lifting of sanctions against a Russian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which garnered the support of not just every Senate Democrat, but also 11 Senate Republicans.  What was notable about yesterday’s vote was the author of the amendment:  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who sets the legislative agenda for Senate Republicans and, by practical effect, for President Donald Trump.

Last year, there were a few examples of the Republican-led Congress blazing its own trail in setting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy apart from the Trump Administration such as a rare prohibition on the ability of the President to waive sanctions against Russia.  However, with the departure of some key national security advisers and Cabinet officials during the past year who were thought to be the “adults” in the room to manage President Trump divergence from traditional Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy and with the gains Democrats made in the 2018 elections, many Republican national security “hawks” are coming to the conclusion that they need to differentiate themselves from President Trump on several fronts.

This may have implications for U.S. policy towards North Korea.  Last December, the President signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (P.L. 115-409), which makes clear that the policy of the United States with regard to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs is the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of such programs.”  The new law also states that “it is the policy of the United States to continue to impose sanctions” on North Korea until it “is no longer engaged in the illicit activities described” in various U.S. Executive Orders and United National Security Council resolutions.

In addition, earlier this week, Representative Mike Gallagher (WI-8th) introduced bipartisan legislation (H.R.889) with three other Republicans and four other Democrats to renew the restrictions on the ability for the President to reduce the number of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula below 22,000 personnel.

These legislative efforts may complicate negotiations with North Korea, particularly if the upcoming summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un leads to a relaxation of sanctions without a clear path towards dismantling the existing stockpile.  If defense “hawks” in the U.S. conclude that North Korea continues to engage in various illicit activities, then implementing any agreement would be very problematic.  Recall that the Agreed Framework of 1994 did not succeed, in part, because of Congressional reluctance and resistance to fulfilling the American side of the bargain by slow-walking the provision to provide aid to North Korea.  This did not allow the completion of the light-water reactor and delayed the delivery of heavy fuel oil on several occasions.  From 1995 until 2006 (excepting 18 months from 2001 until 2002, Democrats controlled the Senate), Republicans controlled Congress.  Thus, it is of the utmost importance for the Trump Administration to continuously brief and inform Members of Congress regarding U.S. policy towards North Korea to garner their support and to avoid a repetition of previous failed diplomatic efforts to end weapons of mass destruction threat from the DPRK.

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Picture taken by Lance Corporal Zachery Laning, U.S. Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons

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