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How Congress Can Help Improve Relations with North Korea: Steps for Peaceful Engagement

In Congress
May 09, 2024
improve relations with north korea

The dynamics between the United States and North Korea have long been fraught with tension, oscillating between periods of heightened animosity and cautious diplomatic engagement. The complexity of this relationship is underscored by the existence of a nuclear-armed North Korea, presenting a persistent concern for regional stability and international security.

In navigating the delicate path of foreign relations with North Korea, it is not only the executive branch that has a pivotal role to play but also the legislative. The U.S. Congress, empowered by the Constitution with various mechanisms to influence foreign policy, finds itself at a critical juncture to assert its role in fostering a more stable coexistence with the East Asian nation.

Tackling the intricate North Korean conundrum has proved challenging for successive U.S. administrations, each grappling with the implications of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Acknowledgement of the legislative branch’s potential in contributing to a more peaceful dynamic is on the rise.

Recognizing that a blend of legislative action and oversight could pave the way for reduced hostilities, there’s a pressing need for policymakers to seek renewed avenues of dialogue and engagement.

Steps toward this goal may include Congress initiating direct discussions with North Korean counterparts and actively supporting exchanges that build bridges between the two peoples. This is to move beyond mere rhetoric to embody a commitment to peace and dialogue.

Past Interactions between US Lawmakers and North Korea

Engaging with North Korea has long been a practice among United States Congress members, and such engagement is seen as a key element to diffuse hostilities and build mutual trust. The groundwork for this was laid in 1980 when Representative Stephen Solarz traveled to North Korea, marking the first encounter between North Korean officials and a serving U.S. lawmaker since the Korean War armistice. He met with Kim Il-sung, a significant diplomatic stride at the time.

Since then, numerous congressional figures spanning various political affiliations have taken similar journeys, interacting with North Korean leadership. Such visits have contributed valuable insights and paved the way for dialogue.

Despite these past efforts, it has been over a decade since a congressional group has made such a visit, specifically since 2008.

The legislative landscape has shifted considerably since the last visit; many who had direct experience with North Korea have since moved on from Congress. Currently, Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Joe Wilson hold the unique position of having engaged with North Korean officials during their tenure.

Travel to North Korea for U.S. citizens, including congressional delegations, is met with substantial hurdles. Following the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, North Korea has cautiously reopened its borders, but primarily to select nations, with the U.S. not yet returning to the list of allowed visitor origins.

Additionally, the U.S. State Department sets strict criteria for travel to North Korea, often necessitating a special validation passport. These are typically granted to journalists, humanitarian missions, or individuals with a compelling national interest.

The prospects of renewing congressional travel to North Korea appear slim in the near future, given these diplomatic and bureaucratic challenges. Congress does retain the potential to facilitate such dialogue, either through securing exceptions or leveraging the national interest clause of the passport validation process.

Congressional Initiatives Regarding North Korea

Legislative Actions

Congress can support the executive branch in engaging with North Korea through legislative measures. A recent example is the initiative to facilitate the reunion of Korean American families separated by the division of Korea.

The establishment of a special registry by Congress through H.R. 7152 aims to include the reunification of divided families in discussions with North Korea.

Historical Efforts

For many years, Congress has shown interest in the plight of these divided families. In 2007, lawmakers founded a commission focusing on these family separations, highlighting a longstanding commitment to address this humanitarian issue.

Diplomatic Steps

The Biden administration eased certain travel restrictions to North Korea on humanitarian grounds, indicating a willingness to support family reunions on a case-by-case basis.

Congress can build on this by encouraging further diplomatic interactions.

Potentially, they could also allow North Korean officials to travel beyond the current 25-mile radius around Manhattan for official negotiations.

Engaging in Dialogues

Congressional Staff Engagement:

  • Encourage staff participation in semi-official and unofficial dialogues with North Korea
  • Track 1.5 and track 2 dialogues can be preludes to reconciliatory measures
  • Sanction revisions now permit controlled engagement for such discussions

Future Diplomacy

Building on these people-to-people contacts, Congress may pave the way for more substantive diplomatic advances.

They can also reflect on the example set in the 1990s by Senators Kerry and McCain with Vietnam, suggesting that similar reconciliation efforts could positively transform U.S.-North Korea relations.