This essay is part of a series, Pursuing Peaceful Coexistence with North Korea, that explores how the United States and South Korea can peacefully coexist with a nuclear North Korea. 

Although the Constitution authorizes the president and the executive branch to lead foreign affairs, it also vests the legislative branch with responsibilities that impact the conduct of diplomacy and statecraft. These include the ability to “declare war,” “raise and support armies,” “regulate commerce with foreign nations” and approve treaties and diplomat appointments, as well as general oversight functions and power to appropriate money from the Treasury.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 27, 2023. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 27, 2023. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

Given how intractable the situation with North Korea has been across administrations and how precarious it is, the United States Congress should play a more active role in reducing tensions and advancing peace with North Korea by exercising its legislative and oversight powers to promote peaceful coexistence and principled engagement between North Korea and the United States. This can be done, in part, by seeking to resume direct congressional engagement with North Korean officials while also facilitating greater people-to-people engagement.

Previous Congressional Engagement with North Korea

There is a decades-old precedent of direct engagement between members of Congress and North Korean officials, and reviving this engagement can help to reduce tensions between the countries while also serving as a confidence-building measure. The first publicly known instance of direct, in-person engagement between a member of the legislative branch and North Korean officials was when Representative Stephen Solarz (D-NY) visited North Korea in 1980. Solarz was the first known sitting American official to travel to North Korea after the signing of the Korean War armistice in 1953. During that trip, he met with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and other high-ranking North Korean officials.

Since Solarz’s historic visit — which preceded the first face-to-face meeting between a sitting American president and a sitting North Korean leader by nearly four decades — dozens of members of Congress and congressional staff across party lines have visited North Korea and engaged directly with North Korean officials.

However, no known congressional delegations or congressional staff delegations have visited North Korea since 2008. North Korea has changed significantly during this time. Many of the members and staff who took part in previous visits have departed the legislative branch along with the firsthand knowledge and experience they gleaned on these visits. Today, only two sitting members of Congress — Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) — are known to have taken part in congressional delegations that visited North Korea.

Obstacles currently exist to the resumption of congressional delegations and congressional staff delegations to North Korea. While North Korea is gradually reopening its borders after the self-imposed closures instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has thus far limited these openings to a few countries, such as Russia, China and Germany. U.S. citizens are not yet known to have legally entered North Korea since the start of the pandemic. Also, the Department of State restricts U.S. passport holders’ travel to North Korea, requiring prospective travelers to apply for a special validation passport that is issued only in limited circumstances, including for journalists, Red Cross representatives, compelling humanitarian reasons or reasons in the national interest.

As long as North Korea continues to reject engagement with the United States and U.S. travel restrictions remain in place, the possibility of the resumption of congressional delegations or congressional staff delegations to North Korea remains unlikely in the short term. However, Congress could consider pursuing this possibility, either through a specific exemption or under the “national interest” carveout of the special validation passport.

What Can Congress Do Now?

Separately, Congress can take additional pragmatic steps in tandem with the executive branch to demonstrate a willingness to engage with North Korea. Recent legislation and executive branch actions offer promising examples for Congress to engage on policy related to North Korea and perhaps even open the door to mutual confidence-building measures.

One specific issue on which Congress can continue to play a constructive role is through efforts to reunite Korean American divided family members with their relatives in North Korea. The Divided Families National Registry Act (H.R. 7152), introduced in the House of Representatives in January 2024 by Representative Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) and Representative Michelle Steel (R-CA), “directs the Secretary of State to establish a national registry of Korean American divided families” as well as “take such actions as may be necessary to ensure that any direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea includes progress towards holding future reunions for Korean American families and their family members in North Korea.”

There is also historical precedent for congressional leadership on this issue. Multiple pieces of legislation related to Korean American divided families have been introduced in Congress for decades, and in 2007 Representative Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Representative Jim Matheson (D-UT) founded the bipartisan Congressional Commission on Divided Families.

The Biden administration already removed one hurdle in late 2023 that could have prevented these reunions from occurring. While it extended the requirement for Americans to receive a special validation passport from the State Department before traveling to North Korea, it also noted that individuals who “have made arrangements through officials channels to visit relatives in the DPRK” may be eligible for special validation passports and the Department of State “will consider these applications on humanitarian grounds on a case-by-case basis.”

Similar exceptions could also apply in the case of U.S. families seeking to recover the remains of kin who were prisoners of war or missing in action during the Korean War. The bipartisan support, recent actions from both the executive and legislative branches, and humanitarian nature of the issue can provide important signals and momentum both domestically and to the North Korean leadership that this is an issue on which the United States is prepared to engage and make progress.

Further attempts to engage directly with officials at the Permanent Mission of North Korea to the United Nations in New York on this issue should be encouraged. One signal that could be used to encourage this engagement is to grant these officials permission to travel to Washington, D.C. or other locations in the United States for official meetings. Currently, North Korean diplomats are limited to staying within 25 miles of Manhattan.

Current and former legislative branch officials and staff should also seek to participate in track 1.5 and track 2 (nongovernmental) dialogues with North Korea when possible. Recent revisions to North Korea sanctions regulations by the U.S. Treasury Department removed some restrictions on applying for licenses from the Office of Foreign Assets Control for engaging in certain track 2 dialogues with North Koreans provided these engagements are reported to the Department of State at least 30 days before they happen and other legal requirements are met. This channel could potentially also be utilized for progress on divided family issues as well as reconstituting the depth of experience on Capitol Hill of members and staff with experience engaging directly with North Korean officials.

Should diplomatic progress occur, there are also a host of other initiatives I have previously proposed in a report published by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy that the United States Congress can take to advance principled and effective engagement with North Korea. However, in the short term, efforts to facilitate people-to-people engagements and congressional staff participation in track 1.5 and track 2 dialogues can lay the groundwork for the mutual confidence building that will be necessary to make diplomacy successful on more challenging political, security and economic issues.

In the 1990s, investigative efforts led by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ), who were Vietnam War veterans, helped resolve the issue of U.S. POW/MIA remaining in Southeast Asia, which paved the way for the Clinton administration to end the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam and normalize diplomatic relations with the former enemy. Congressional engagement focused on reconciliation has the potential to achieve similar outcomes for U.S.-North Korea relations.

Matthew Abbott is the executive director of the Institute for American Leadership. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent any institutional positions.

PHOTO: South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 27, 2023. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).