Empowering Congress on the Korean Peninsula

Executive Summary

In 2019-2020, the Stimson Center’s 38 North and Security for a New Century (SNC) programs convened a bipartisan congressional Korea Study Group (KSG). The KSG brought U.S. House and Senate staffers together with a broad range of former U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) officials, analysts, and academics. The goal was to empower the U.S. Congress and to encourage its members to play their constitutional roles in key foreign policy and national security issues by building a dialogue that would consider security challenges on the Korean peninsula and surrounding region, explore options to prevent a wider conflict, reduce the chances of a nuclear exchange, and maintain U.S. security interests and alliances. While staff came from different offices, political parties, and viewpoints, this report highlights areas of convergence. Drawing on these meetings, the following main points and options emerged from our discussions:

  • Increase Diplomacy on Nuclear Issues. Increasing diplomatic efforts to better understand what North Korea is willing to relinquish is necessary, even if there is significant skepticism that North Korea will agree to full denuclearization for the foreseeable future. Also, it is important to balance diplomacy with realistic and credible deterrence.
  • Start with a Testing Moratorium. Securing a formal moratorium on nuclear and missile-testing has value, since it prevents further advancement of DPRK systems and could build toward diplomatic progress in other areas.
  • Support the Executive Branch. Providing the executive branch greater flexibility and supporting effective negotiations if U.S.-DPRK negotiations were to move forward, by underwriting the effort through a “Sense of Congress” resolution in support of certain tension reduction measures, such as the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA).
  • Work Across Committees. Critically examining Congress’s committee structure, wherein defense and diplomacy are the purview of separate committees, would be effective in learning how to balance both sides of the equation and maintain oversight that is mutually reinforcing.
  • Build Parliamentary Connections. Creating regular, targeted, and systematic connections between the U.S. Congress and the ROK National Assembly, while building upon existing congressional delegations (CODELS) would help congressional and National Assembly committees, staffers, and lawmakers from all sides better understand one another’s geopolitical perspectives and political and decision-making systems.
  • Address Cost-Sharing in the Region. Quickly concluding a three- to five-year Special Measures Agreement (SMA) deal and returning cost-sharing talks to the working-level would prove constructive. Additionally, creating a new consultative mechanism to operationalize ongoing discussions more formally on the ROK-U.S. alliance’s role vis-à-vis the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy and ROK’s New Southern Strategy, respectively, would be helpful.
  • Transform the Alliance. Increasing the number of hearings and discussions with the U.S. military and the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense around the issue of alliance transformation and wartime Operational Control (OPCON) transfer is necessary. Discussions need to be held now to clear up misunderstandings and help policymakers and the American public better understand what OPCON transfer means for U.S. foreign policy and military force commitments overseas.
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