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The Peninsula

What Do the U.S. Mid-term Elections Mean for U.S.-Korea Relations?

Published November 7, 2018

By Phil Eskeland

There is wide-spread support for strong and close relations between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (ROK).  South Korea has grown and prospered since the immense sacrifice made by the U.S., South Korea, and others in the international community during Korean War, and emulates America’s model of democracy, political freedom, and free markets.   Korea’s soft power has dramatically flourished as well in recent years in which many Americans, particularly millennials, have a strong affinity for Korean food and K-pop music.  Rapidly rising Korean investment in the U.S. during the past decade, employing a growing number of Americans, further assists the positive image of Korea, particularly in areas in “fly-over” country that have seen tough times and been overlooked by others.

This support is reflected in Congress.  Unlike some areas in U.S. trade policy, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) passed by wide bipartisan margins in 2011.  Legislation to strengthen sanctions against North Korea have passed Congress by near unanimous vote.  Earlier this year, Congress even added an amendment by unanimous consent to the annual defense bill that limited the ability of the President to unilaterally withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula below a certain level.

Yesterday’s mid-term elections produced a result that has not been seen in Washington since 1981 when President Ronald Reagan had to deal with a Democrat-controlled House of Representative, led by Speaker Tip O’Neil of Boston, Massachusetts (“all politics is local” is his most notable quote), and a Republican-controlled Senate, led by self-effacing Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee.  However, unlike the situation faced by President Reagan in 1981, President Donald Trump cannot count on 30 or 40 “boll weevil” or conservative Democrats to join with House Republicans, serving in the minority, to enact more of his agenda.  While some of the newly elected representatives may eventually join the boll weevil successor Blue Dog coalition, there are currently only 18 House Democrats listed as members of this caucus.  In addition, Congress has dramatically changed during the past 30 years in which Speaker Nancy Pelosi, unlike Speaker O’Neil, would control the House floor so effectively that it would preclude renegade Democrats from coalescing with Republicans to pass anything substantial over the leadership’s objections.

What can be expected over the next two years is a return to gridlock and more Congressional investigations and oversight of the Trump Administration.  While there may be certain exceptions, such as enactment of an infrastructure bill, there will be focus by many of the new committee chairmen in the House to reverse what they felt was negligence on the part of previous Republican chairmen to properly oversee the activities and programs of the Executive Branch.

This investigative spirit may spill over into the Foreign Affairs Committee.  Observers of Korea policy will miss retiring Chairman Ed Royce, who because of his constituency and location of his southern California district, was a strong advocate for a deeper understanding of Asia and, specifically, the U.S.-Korea alliance in Congress.  Representative Elliot Engel (who comes from the other side of the United States, representing neighborhoods in northern Bronx and southern Westchester County of New York), will become the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee next January.  While Chairman Royce was careful to cultivate a bipartisan approach to issues affecting the Korean Peninsula, particularly during the tumultuous Trump era, Democrats may be torn between their desires for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the North Korea nuclear issue and their deep skepticism of the Trump Administration’s overall approach towards foreign policy, particularly in light of Trump’s decision to terminate the Iran nuclear deal.  Any deal with North Korea on denuclearization would have to be vastly superior to the Iran nuclear agreement.  Thus, if the Trump Administration agrees to gradually lift some sanctions before there is complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program, Congressional Democrats may pounce on the deal as incomplete and blame Trump’s incompetency as a negotiator.  This opposition would escalate even further if at some point in the next two years, President Trump decides to withdraw from negotiations with North Korea and threatens kinetic action to pressure North Korea.

In addition, if this scenario plays out, Senate Republicans may also feel a need to separate themselves more from the Trump Administration, particularly as the next election season gets closer to 2020 and if any deal with North Korea falls short of CVID.  The next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, comes from a background of service as the Chairman of the Near East Subcommittee and also as a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.  One test of this proposition is to see if the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (S. 2736) passes Congress during the upcoming “lame duck” session because it contains a provision that clearly lays out a marker that the objective of U.S. policy towards negotiations with North Korea is the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of not only its nuclear but also its ballistic missile programs.

It is unclear if Senators Cory Gardner and Ed Markey, who are the main co-authors of S. 2736, will continue serving as the respective chair and ranking member of the East Asia Subcommittee in the next Congress.  Nonetheless, expect policy continuity on Korea-related matters regardless of who serves as chairman of this subcommittee with the possible exception of libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

One final note: a bright spot from yesterday’s mid-term election was the apparent election of Young Kim to succeed retiring Representative Ed Royce of the 39th District of California. If she is able to maintain her lead, this will be the first time in 20 years that a Korean American has served in the U.S. Congress. Even being in the minority, she may take on a leadership role that Representative Royce has undertaken these past 26 years to strengthen and deepen the U.S.-Korea alliance, in part because of her heritage but also because of her constituency and the economic interests of the district. Andy Kim is also locked in a tight race with Rep. Tom MacArthur in New Jersey and could potentially be another Korean American to serve in the new Congress.

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

Photo from the Natig-Sharifov’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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