With significant uncertainty surrounding the proposed Trump-Kim summit scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in Washington this week to ensure the historic meeting happens. Whether it's sanctions relief or appropriating peacebuilding funds, the U.S. Congress will play a pivotal role in any settlement with North Korea. Amid questions about Pyongyang’s intent and past negotiating behavior, Congressman Steve Russell (R-OK) and Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA), both military veterans, offered their support for the Trump administration’s participation in the summit during a bipartisan dialogue at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK), Nancy Lindborg, President of USIP, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA)
Pictured left to right, Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK), Nancy Lindborg, President of USIP, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA)

Will the Summit Happen?

North Korea’s decision to cancel high-level talks with South Korea last week over Seoul’s joint military exercises with the U.S., and Pyongyang’s threats to pull out of the summit if the U.S. insists it abandon its nuclear program, has thrown the June 12 summit into doubt. These moves have led the Trump administration to reconsider participating in the summit.

Representatives Lieu and Russell argued that U.S. should continue to engage with North Korea. “Anytime you can have dialogue it’s helpful,” said Congressman Russell, adding, “As a warrior, I feel like dialogue is always preferable to combat.” Russell also argued that the reason the summit was planned in the first place was because “we haven’t done anything but take a hardline” on North Korean nuclear proliferation.

Congressman Lieu, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added his support, noting, “South Korea, North Korea and the U.S. have a very big incentive to have this summit actually happen,” but called for caution due to Pyongyang’s “troubling statements” and “pattern of past behavior.”

What are the alternatives to negotiating? “It’s important to talk about the military option, because that informs every other option. The higher the cost of military intervention, the more you have to look at other options,” said Lieu, and, “there’s no good military option.” In response to an inquiry from Lieu, the Pentagon said that denuclearizing North Korea through a military campaign would require a costly and no doubt bloody ground invasion.

The impact on America’s regional allies would be immense—which means that all other options should be taken into consideration. Both congressmen agreed that diplomacy was the best tool for resolving the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, which USIP President Nancy Lindborg deemed “one of the most urgent threats to U.S. national security.”

The Impact of the Iran Deal

President Trump’s recent decision to withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has led to speculation about its impact on the summit with North Korea—will the move lead Pyongyang to cast doubt on the U.S. as a reliable partner or strengthen Washington’s negotiating hand?

Rep. Russell, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was quick to dismiss a connection between the two issues: “It’s like comparing an apple with a crescent wrench—completely different dynamic with completely different cultures and circumstances.” While Iran has worked to project it’s influence throughout the Middle East, noted Russell, North Korea has been singularly focused on the Korean Peninsula.

For Lieu, the strictures of the Iran deal—which he was one of the few Democrats to vote against—will affect the Trump administration’s calculus in negotiations with North Korea. “The deal had intrusive inspections … any deal with North Korea would seem to have to exceed the Iran deal … You’re going to have to have extremely intrusive inspections of a very closed regime. The Iran deal ups the bar in terms of what this administration will be willing to accept.”

Continuing the U.S. Troop Presence in the Korean Peninsula

As evidenced by Kim Jong Un’s cancellation of high-level talks with Seoul last week, the U.S. presence in South Korea is a major point of contention for Pyongyang. Should the Trump administration consider restructuring U.S. forces in South Korea as part of the negotiations?

“The withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula is not really an option. It's in everyone's interest for American troops to stay on the Korean Peninsula” said Russell, adding that removing the troops could destabilize the region “on a scale we cannot control.” Ultimately, the U.S. troop presence is a stabilizing factor that has tamped down further proliferation in East Asia.

Indeed, the American presence in the Korean Peninsula is largely driven by an effort to ensure regional stability—however, North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, has changed the U.S. posture. “The reason the U.S. increased pressure on North Korea wasn't because they developed nuclear technology, it was because they were developing ICBM missile technology that might eventually threaten the U.S.” said Lieu.

Congress’ Role

What can Congress due to help ensure the successful implementation of a deal? “If tangible results come out of the negotiations with North Korea, Congress has the popular support to invest in peacebuilding to make the deal successful. And whatever it costs, it will be cheaper than military action,” said Russell. Moreover, added Lieu, “Congress will be engaged in any kind of deal with North Korea if sanctions are involved. And Congress will also hold hearings to help understand the administration’s objectives and strategies.”

The congressmen agreed that when it comes to major foreign policy agreements, the best option is a ratified treaty, which must go through the Senate.

Russell and Lieu came together to discuss bipartisan approaches to North Korea as part of USIP’s Bipartisan Congressional Dialogues—a series of discussions to explore members of Congress’ common ground on foreign policy problems.

“You do see a number of times when veterans on both sides [in Congress] will get together on certain issues. We were taught and trained to put country first—it’s the mission that’s important,” said Lieu, a former active duty officer in the U.S. Air Force who currently serves as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves. Rep. Russell, who co-chairs the Warrior Caucus and served in the U.S. Army for over two decades, added that the bipartisan consensus on many foreign policy issues is “particularly true among veterans in Congress.”

USIP’s Bipartisan Congressional Dialogues will continue to bring together leaders from both political parties to address urgent national security and foreign policy challenges. 

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