Sources: Manyin and Nitikin on the Politics of Foreign Assistance to North Korea (Part II)



In a prior post, we reviewed Mark Manyin and Mary Beth Nikitin’s excellent report on US assistance to North Korea, which they recently updated. We focused on the humanitarian dimension, but particularly on the politics: what has to occur on the Hill for the US to provide support to North Korea? Today I look at the assistance related to denuclearization.

First, it is interesting to be reminded of how much assistance the US has provided o North Korea in support of denuclearization objectives. Of the $1.3 billion given between 1995 and 2008, slightly more than 50% went to food aid but about 40% was for energy assistance during two periods when negotiations were on track. The first period was 1995-2002 in support of the Agreed Framework. In late 2002, the Bush administration took the fateful—and in my view mistaken--step of cutting oil shipments in response intelligence about the North’s HEU program, thus effectively ending the Agreed Framework and triggering the second nuclear crisis. The second period was during 2007-2009 in the wake of a badly deteriorating food situation and in support of the interim roadmap agreements of February and October 2007.

In its FY2009 Supplemental Appropriations budget request, the Obama Administration sought over $150 million for North Korea-related energy and denuclearization assistance in the event there was a breakthrough following the collapse of the Six Party Talks in late 2008. However, both House and Senate appropriators rejected these requests in response to North Korea’s withdrawal from the process and subsequent missile and nuclear tests in the spring of 2009. Since that time, Congress has specifically prohibited energy assistance to North Korea most recently in Section 8042 of the FY2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 113-76).

The report also highlights an additional channel through which support for denuclearization might be provided. In 2008, Senator Richard Lugar proposed that the Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program be granted so-called “notwithstanding authority” for denuclearization work in North Korea; ie., authority to use funds “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” CTR funds were initially authorized for dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons in Russia and the former Soviet successor states, but authorization to use them globally and in North Korea specifically was contained in the FY2008 Defense Authorization Act. The FY2010 Defense Authorization bill (P.L. 111-84) also gave the CTR program “notwithstanding” authority for a limited amount of funds to be used globally, which could in principle include work in North Korea.

The last time the Obama Administration requested funds specifically for denuclearization work in North Korea was in the FY2009 Supplemental Appropriations Request: $47 million for the State Department’s Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund (NDF) “to support dismantlement of nuclear facilities in North Korea” and $34.5 million for Department of Energy (DOE). The House Appropriations Committee halved the NDF request to $23.5 million, but did not exclude the use of these funds in North Korea. The Senate Appropriations Committee report also did not specifically mention North Korea in its description of NDF funding, but also did not exclude it. Since then, funding requests for NDF have not referenced North Korea.

The Hill’s view of the DOE request was harsher. The administration’s ask for DOE fell under two programs that could have supported disablement and disposal of spent fuel rods: $25 million for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative and $9.5 million for the Nonproliferation and International Security Program’s “disablement and dismantlement support” in the DPRK. Both House and Senate committees deleted all reference to North Korea, saying they had to move first. Subsequent appropriations make it explicit that none of the funds could be used on North Korea without specific authorization.

The United States is often accused, and rightly, of not being attentive to complex political dynamics in North Korea. But the current mood in Washington with respect to restarting talks is not solely a function of stubbornness; it reflects aid fatigue and political dynamics on the Hill. Holding out for some concrete signs of North Korean interest in negotiations—such as those contained in the Leap Year deal—reflects real political constraints. Does the President want to expend energy on diplomatic initiatives with low probability outcomes that are vulnerable to political sniping? These constraints could well be more binding after November 2016.

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