At the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ first public hearing with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, bipartisan calls for the State Department to advance U.S.-North Korea diplomacy emerged. Questions from Reps. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) and Young Kim (R-Calif.) at the hearing suggest that bipartisan agreement for jumpstarting diplomacy with North Korea is possible, rather than a policy of non-engagement (and waiting for the North Koreans to make the first move) that has failed to reduce tensions or address longstanding humanitarian challenges such as divided Korean American families and repatriation of POW/MIA remains from North Korea.
Just prior to the hearing with Blinken, Rep. Andy Kim asked General Robert Abrams of U.N. Command, Combined Forces Command, and U.S. Forces Korea, who was testifying at the House Armed Services Committee, whether there were any problems from a military standpoint to formally declaring the Korean War over. General Abrams said he had “no immediate military concerns” so long as such effort is part of “a broader strategy with a clearly defined end state.” Indeed, a coherent strategy is not only prudent for protecting U.S. interests but for ordinary North Koreans who bear the brunt of international sanctions.
Rep. Kim cited Gen. Abrams’ answer as part of a question to Secretary Blinken later in the HFAC hearing on whether or not time had come for the United States to formally end the Korean War. Secretary Blinken said the United States must first “make sure we are doing everything we can to advance the security of our allies and partners, starting with South Korea as well as Japan” before taking such a “dramatic” step. That said, Blinken noted that the State Department as part of its policy review is seeking “the best possible tools to advance denuclearization” and looking at various “pressure points” as well as “diplomatic opportunities” with North Korea.
A statement declaring an end to hostilities between the parties of the Korean War would not have any legal status but could catalyze movement toward a broad agreement between the United States and North Korea. Such a move by the Biden administration would receive transpartisan support and be welcomed by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. For example Rep. Ro Khanna recently authored a bill calling for a formal end to the war, echoing previous bipartisan calls from Korean War veterans in the House such as Charlie Rangel, John Conyers, and Sam Johnson.
Rep. Young Kim’s questions to Blinken were equally effective in elevating the North Korea issue as a high priority for the Biden administration. Before she became a congresswoman, Rep. Kim was a longtime aide to former Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ed Royce. She brings with her a deep understanding of the Korean American divided families in particular, as well as expertise in foreign policy.
Rep. Kim asked Blinken to commit to filling the Special Envoy for North Korea human rights issues position as mandated by the North Korea Human Rights Act. There is “dire and urgent need” to address the issue of divided Korean American families, coordinated by the Special Envoy. Blinken said he shared Rep. Kim’s sense of urgency and committed to filling the role as soon as possible.
At Rep. Kim’s urging Blinken also pledged to pursue trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, noting his experience as deputy secretary of State in advancing regular trilateral dialogue.
Thanks to the constructive engagements by Reps. Andy Kim and Young Kim, there is reason for optimism that the Biden administration will seriously consider new ways to restart talks with North Korea. Of course, the devil is in the details. Considerable work remains to be done to bridge the gap between the progressive government in Seoul and the conservative government in Tokyo on the North Korea issue, and to reassure cautious groups and elites in South Korea, the United States, and Japan.
But as the hearing showed, American foreign policy should primarily advance American interests, and an end-of-hostilities declaration and a human-centered North Korea policy would do just that. Congress should work in a bipartisan manner with the Biden administration to break the deadlock in talks with North Korea. American lives depend on it.