The Midterms and North Korea

A split Congress could affect Donald Trump’s negotiating strategy vis-à-vis North Korea, but the legislative branch’s impact will mostly come at the margins of U.S. policy. Trump’s control over the two major levers of U.S. pressure on North Korea—sanctions implementation and the military—means that he has significant discretion over negotiations with Pyongyang. By controlling the sources of U.S. pressure, Trump can adjust either and impact negotiations with little concern for what Congress thinks or wants. Congress does have the ability to prevent either extreme outcome of war or peace, but neither of these seem likely given the current conditions on the peninsula.

The two primary ways the new Congress could influence North Korea policy is through investigations and appropriations. House investigations could absorb much of Trump’s time and political capital, making it harder for him to find the time to negotiate with North Korea. Appropriations battles between the White House and Capitol Hill could restrict the former’s latitude in talks with Pyongyang, but any potential restrictions are unlikely to suffocate the president’s efforts. For better or worse, the executive branch in general and Trump in particular will be able to deal with North Korea as they see fit, even with a Democrat-controlled House.

An additional but very uncertain way that the midterms could affect U.S. policy toward North Korea is by creating a window of opportunity for both Trump and Kim Jong Un. If Trump comes away from the midterms thinking his prospects for re-election are grim, then he may push harder to break the current impasse in negotiations in order score a major foreign policy win that he can point to on the campaign trail. Likewise, Kim could take a similar lesson from the midterms and try to maximize diplomatic gains while Trump is still in the White House if Kim thinks a new president would want to return to a “maximum pressure”-like policy. There is no guarantee that the two leaders will have this interpretation, however, and even if they did they may decide that continued engagement is not worthwhile.