Amid concerns that the US Trump administration's North Korean policies have been loosened, US Congress is stepping up its efforts to bolster the US’s defense against North Korea. It has passed a bill to hold President Trump in check and, on top of that, publicly sent a warning message to the South Korean government which requested the exemption of some items from North Korea sanctions. The message could put the brakes on the expansion of inter-Korean exchanges in the future.
The US Senate opened a plenary session on August 1 (local time) and passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 87 to 10. The legislation included the defense budget for fiscal year 2019. It went through a plenary session of the House of Representatives on May 26 before being okayed at the Senate on August 1.
The bill included not only a limit in the reduction of the US Forces in South Korea and the obligation of the US administration to report to US Congress on its negotiations with North Korea on denuclearization but also the US’s principles in denuclearization.
The legislation precluded the Trump administration from reducing US forces in South Korea to less than 22,000 without approval from Congress. This bill also prevented President Trump from thoughtlessly exercising his right to the US forces in South Korea and using a reduction of the US Forces in Korea as a negotiation card in denuclearization talks with North Korea. President Trump expressed his willingness to prune US troops to cut down on US defense cost.
The bill also requires the US administration to regularly report to Congress about details of the North Korean nuclear weapons program and the verification and evaluation of denuclearization negotiations and implementation. As the bill was passed, the US Department of Defense, together with the US National Intelligence Service, should submit a report on the status of North Korea's nuclear program to the Standing Committee within 60 days. Each time an agreement is reached between the US and North Korea, it is obligatory to submit an additional report within 60 days from the date of agreement signing and update it every 90 days. In particular, US Congress stipulated in the legislation the provision of "Congressional Recognition" which set the CVID (the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement) of North Korean nuclear weapons as a key objective.
In the end, the passing of the bill means that US Congress will basically block the possibility of secret deals between US and North Korean officials, establishing the US’s principle in the denuclearization of North Korea. Through the bill, US Congress expressed its will not to let the US lose the initiative to North Korea in nuclear talks.
US Congress also warned the South Korean government against its move to break away from US sanctions on North Korea, citing the reopening of the Gaesong Industrial Complex and the transshipment of North Korean coals to South Korea. "Restarting the Gaesong Industrial Complex will be a major breach of rules of sanctions on North Korea and a big mistake," said Corey Gardener (Republican, Colorado), chairman of the East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee under the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate in an interview with VOA on August 1. "North Korean coal exports to South Korea can be a violation of sanctions and will face a secondary boycott."
Senator Gardener quoted US Secretary of State Pompeo as saying that he would not suspend sanctions other than those lifted during the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea although South Korea asked the US to ease the sanctions on North Korea. “We encourage the two Koreas to expand inter-Korean exchanges but such exchanges must honor sanction rules,” said senator Ben Cardin (Democrat, Maryland).
It has become more likely that the Trump administration will reject the South Korean government's request for the exemption of some items from sanctions on North Korea as even US Congress reiterated its principle that sanctions on North Korea will be neither lifted nor eased without North Korea’s denuclearization measures.