By Troy Stangarone
In trying to sell Kim Jong-un on giving up his nuclear program, the United States and South Korea have tried to entice North Korea with the promise of a better economic future. As part of this push, the Trump administration has suggested that the U.S. private sector, along with China, South Korea, and Japan, will provide financial assistance to North Korea. However, it has also been made clear that no U.S. tax dollars will be used as an economic inducement for North Korea.
While the refusal to provide aid is in line with President Donald Trump’s desire to ensure that greater costs are born by other states, there is a practical reason why the United States will not provide significant aid to North Korea. The administration is limited in its ability to provide economic assistance.
When Congress legislates sanctions on foreign countries, it generally includes a provision in the legislation that allows an administration to waive the sanctions if it determines that doing so in the national interest. Most of the U.S. sanctions on North Korea contain national interest waivers, but in most cases they do not to apply to the prohibitions on providing aid to the regime in Pyongyang.
In recent years, Congress has inserted specific language into the annual appropriations legislation explicitly forbidding the use of funds for North Korea. These restrictions include credits, loans, or guarantees by the Export-Import Bank. While there are exceptions for humanitarian aid and some other circumstances, it is unlikely that Congress will change course and remove the prohibitions in the near future.
While the administration could request Congress grant it an exception to the prohibitions on aid or to remove them permanently, it would also need to persuade Congress to appropriate the necessary funds. Doing so could be challenging. If the United States intends to provide security assurances to the North Korean regime through a treaty in the U.S. Senate, as has been suggested by Secretary Pompeo, persuading Congress to also waive sanctions on aid will be dependent upon progress on the nuclear issue, and perhaps other issues. Even if the administration can secure an agreement with North Korea on the nuclear issue that would gain the support of two-thirds of the Senate that would be needed for passage of a treaty, Congress may be reluctant to appropriate funds for North Korea if progress is not made on issues that could include North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, its cyber activities, and human rights.
The history of the Agreed Framework suggests that even if Congress agrees to appropriate funds there will be limits. As part of the Agreed Framework, the United States committed to providing 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil a year until a light water reactor was completed. The Clinton administration had promised Congress that the costs would not exceed $30 million a year, and when they did the needed extra funds were not forthcoming. In the case of the Agreed Framework, the funds were designed to serve as a bridge to a new energy resource for North Korea. While it is reasonable to expect that if a deal is struck Congress might appropriate funds for dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program, funding that is focused on economic development as opposed to dismantlement is unlikely.
Practically speaking, the Trump administration does not have the authority to provide economic assistance to North Korea and is unlikely to seek it from Congress. It goes against Trump’s broader philosophy and is something Congress would most likely be reluctant to provide. While North Korea will need assistance in developing its economy, there is unlikely to be political support in the United States in the near future for economic aid for North Korea.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo by Pictures of Money on flickr Creative Commons.