America’s Domestic Turbulence Unlikely to Hamper the Korean Peace Process

  Democratic House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joins climate activists occupying the office of House Representative Nancy Pelosi. (Source: Common Dreams  )

Democratic House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joins climate activists occupying the office of House Representative Nancy Pelosi. (Source: Common Dreams )

Written by Jesse Edwards (editor)
Edited by Dae-Han song (chief English editor)
Copy-edited by Katelyn Hemmeke (editor)

The United States Democratic party won a House majority in the 2018 Midterm Elections, with at least 233 seats to the GOP’s 199 and three seats still undecided. With the GOP’s increasing Senate majority by one to 53 seats, it would be difficult to label the results a “Blue Wave.” Nonetheless, a diverse group of new congresswomen made headlines in their victories, including four that campaigned on radical reforms such as Medicare for All, free college tuition, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While the House Dems have been empowered to challenge President Donald Trump on domestic issues such as the national budget and tax reform, foreign policy is largely shaped by the president and the State Department. Since the Senate oversees and approves all treaties, the midterm elections do not jeopardize a peace agreement with North Korea. The House does have the authority to oversee any measures that include foreign aid, trade and commerce, so they would have the final say if North Korea requires aid from the United States in order to be persuaded to denuclearize.

Nancy Pelosi has been confidently aiming to regain her role as Speaker of the House, a title she held from 2007 to 2011. She has promoted a course towards bipartisanship[1], but will this extend to support for Trump’s negotiations with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un? Some outspoken Democratic lawmakers have already become an obstacle to full support in Washington on the peace process. Pelosi was critical of Trump’s “hasty concessions” to North Korea during the Singapore Summit this past June. In contrast, another challenger for House Speaker, Barbara Lee was a firm supporter of the Summit, encouraging Trump to work with experts and to continue to engage North Korea in order to denuclearize the country.

While Pelosi is likely to be the next House Speaker, she has already been confronted by a new school of lawmakers looking to push the party away from a doctrine of neoliberalism towards one that pushes an agenda embedded in the realities of the American working people. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined a sit-in protest in Pelosi’s office six days after the election to promote a Green New Deal. Other newcomers like Omar Ilhan, Rashida Tlaib, and Deb Haaland have all endorsed the bill. Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, who both ran with full support from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), started advocating for a grassroots movement together with the Justice Democrats[2] to encourage new leaders in (Democratic) blue districts to challenge incumbents who are not ideological or demographic representatives of their bases. This has already created some tremors within the party[3], but since these new congresswomen are proponents of diplomacy over aggression, it’s unlikely they will stand in the way of a peace process and look to advocate for a treaty to members of the party who may find themselves stuck in anti-Trumpist politics.

A peace treaty would require a hearing in the House only if it incorporated trade, foreign aid, or immigration. In such a case, it would be handled by the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Despite his criticism of President Trump’s Singapore Summit for failing to secure concrete concessions from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, Eliot Engel, the Democratic Party’s ranking committee member, ultimately supports diplomacy with North Korea. He has authored a bill that would establish a baseline of North Korea’s weapons capabilities and has insisted on a concrete timetable of denuclearization along with verifiable evidence that the weapons have been dismantled[4]. Brad Sherman, who is the ranking member of the Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, echoed Engel in his statement insisting that President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “codify a full freeze on North Korea’s program[5].” It’s clear that the House will condemn a peace treaty that does not offer a commitment of complete and verifiable denuclearization from North Korea and would be unlikely to agree to any aid or trade deals that lack such a commitment.  

To get an idea of how Congress could stop the deal, once upon a time in 1994, President BIll Clinton had a nuclear disarmament agreement with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. It was nixed after a newly elected GOP Congress refused to fund the oil offered in exchange for shutting down nuclear energy sources. Like many of today’s Democratic lawmakers, the GOP thought Clinton was giving up too much while getting too few concessions from North Korea. Recently, Congresswoman Pelosi and Senator Markey showed dismay at Trump for agreeing to halt U.S. / South Korean military exercises near the North Korean border without concrete offers of complete and verifiable denuclearization from the North. North Korea has economic motivations in denuclearizing and should they require more than the lifting of the sanctions imposed on them, such as a similar request for assistance from the United States, Trump would then be forced to negotiate with the House.

What are Trump’s motivations in discussing denuclearization with North Korea? It’s odd to suggest that the president who pulled out of Obama’s deal with Iran wants peace. It’s not too far-fetched to think that ego is playing a role, considering he has literally commodified his historic summit with Kim Jong-Un by issuing a Peace Talks Coin. Should the talks start to accelerate, a strong deal would make a case for re-election, not to mention his legacy. It’s perhaps overly cynical to imagine the Democrats would balk at supporting a peace deal the same way the GOP spoke out against Obama’s move toward diplomacy with Iran. Trump’s foreign policy will come to the forefront in 2020 when he vies for re-election, and he could avoid tangible oversight altogether by acting unilaterally[6]. He is going to be attacked by his Democratic challengers for pulling out of the Iran Deal, and coming to an agreement with North Korea will allow him to deflect the issue.

In the GOP’s Senate, bipartisan support for peace is less of an issue. Though they were not able to get enough votes to repeal the American Care Act (AMA), the GOP were able to pass Trump’s marquee tax bill that heavily cut taxes on corporations and confirmed Trump’s controversial nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. Similarly, the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs is likely to take up the party line and support President Trump through his negotiations. Committee chairman Bob Corker was mildly critical of Trump’s meeting with Kim, mentioning that “it was difficult to determine what of concrete nature occurred[7]” at the Singapore Summit. Corker is leaving his seat in the Senate for the next term, however, and with at least 52 GOP Senators, a treaty can withstand two dissenters[8].

On the Democratic side, ranking member of the committee, Democrat Bob Menendez has pushed for more verification of disarmament. Senators Ed Markey, the ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees affairs in East Asia, and Richard Blumenthal have voiced rather dissenting opinions. Markey stated that “The loopholes in the agreement are big enough to fly nuclear missiles through[9].” Blumenthal remarked that the President is engaging in “magical thinking of the most dangerous kind,” and that “Kim Jong-Un has cast a spell on Donald Trump[10].”  While these Democratic Senators have been more vocal in their criticisms, they really aren’t going to be factors in the outcome without a majority vote to reject a proposal they don’t like.

In late September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell boasted about how the GOP was able to pack the federal courts with conservative judges and let it be known that working with the Trump administration has been his best time in the Senate in 34 years. In contrast, new leftist voices were voted into Congress in early November, running on the progressive ideas that made Bernie Sanders so popular in 2016. This has led to a growing movement to push the Democratic Party to champion new platforms. While the arena of American electoral politics looks to become further polarized leading up to the 2020 Presidential election, for now the President is likely to have carte blanche on many of his foreign policy initiatives. The best scenario may have South Korean President Moon Jae-In and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim continue to take the initiative and hope that Trump continues to seek an agreement with North Korea in good faith. Most recently, Trump’s State Department voiced full support for linking a railway between North and South Korea. There seem to be no indications that Trump is souring at the prospect of peace. Let the Korean peninsula benefit from leaders engaged in peace while America searches for its political identity.

  1. The military budget did in fact continue to increase during her last term as Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011 during the Iraq War, despite public support to wind down or end the war. Though the Democratic Party won a majority in both the House and the Senate in 2006 with candidates campaigning on ending the George W. Bush administration’s ongoing occupation of Iraq, the war continued until late 2011.
  2. The Justice Democrats, along with Our Revolution, are grassroots organizations founded by managers of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign in order to promote new candidates who run on progressive platforms.
  3. Liberal journalists and Democratic Party members have voiced concerns about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s agitations. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/11/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-confounds-house-democrats/576307/
  4. For more on Engel’s bill, see: https://engel.house.gov/latest-news/bipartisan-group-of-lawmakers-offers-north-korea-bill/
  5. For Senator Sherman’s full statement, see: https://sherman.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressman-sherman-statement-on-north-korea-summit
  6. President Obama was able to act unilaterally by naming the agreement with Iran the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” Since it was not officially a treaty, Congress was forced to pass the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. The act required the Senate to reach 60 votes in order to block Obama’s plan and the Senate failed to do so.
  7. Senator Corker’s full statement on the Singapore Summit can be found here: https://www.corker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2018/6/corker-statement-on-north-korea-summit
  8. In the case of a 50-50 tie Vice President Mike Pence, who acts as Speaker of the Senate, will have the tie-breaking vote that will almost certainly be tallied to support the president.
  9. Senator Markey’s full statement can be found here: https://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/senator-markey-on-trump-kim-summit-loopholes-in-signed-agreement-are-big-enough-to-fly-nuclear-missiles-through
  10. Senator Blumenthal appeared on an episode of the Thinking CAP podcast on June 14, 2018 to give his thoughts on the Singapore Summit.Thinking CAP is an official podcast of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank whose funders include the likes of CitiGroup, Wells Fargo, defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. The episode can be found here: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/news/2018/06/14/452213/sen-richard-blumenthals-take-corruption/