Will Republicans Lose Their Majority in Congress? Ask Pyongyang

North Koreans are watching the U.S. midterm elections closely, wondering how the results might affect negotiations with Trump.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Singapore on June 12. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Singapore on June 12. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans are anxiously waiting to see if the midterm congressional elections this November will chip away at President Donald Trump’s power in Washington.

So is North Korea.

North Korean officials are monitoring the midterm elections closely, wary that setbacks for Trump’s Republican Party could hamper their negotiations with the United States, according to South Korean diplomats, former U.S. officials, and regional experts.  

Polls suggest the Republicans could lose their thin majority in the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate as well.

If Democrats win control of either body, they could be in a position to influence—or possibly scuttle—any deal between the two countries, congressional staffers told Foreign Policy.

“They’re very, very interested in this midterm election,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

According to Terry and U.S.-based South Korean diplomats, the monitoring is done mostly by North Korean officials based at the United Nations.

“They are really worried that the president, coming out on the other side of this election, may not be interested in this issue anymore, may be hog-tied or hand-tied by his Congress,” said Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and at one point a top consideration to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea.

Cha and Terry said North Korean officials might also be concerned about the prospects of an impeachment case against Trump gaining traction—over allegations of election collusion with Russia or other scandals that have plagued his administration.

Countries around the world, even the most secluded ones, always take interest in U.S. elections and how they might affect the country’s foreign policy.

Some experts say the North Koreans are closely monitoring the midterms, but it is not unusual.

“Of course they’re gathering information. … That’s nothing new,” said Joel Wit, a scholar on Northeast Asia at Johns Hopkins University and founder of 38 North, a website that tracks North Korea issues.

“I have not detected any signs of any anxiety [beyond] the usual level of interest,” said K.A. Namkung, a Korea scholar with the University of Washington who engages North Korean officials in Track II dialogues and has contact with the North Korean mission at the U.N.

“They watch the American … political system like a hawk,” Namkung added. “It is the number one subject of interest to them,” he said, even down to individual senators’ voting records.

What makes this moment unique is the fact that Trump is the first U.S. president to negotiate directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In doing so—including offering Pyongyang hard concessions and even telling a crowd of supporters he “fell in love” with Kim—Trump has upended U.S. policy and astonished even some of his own advisors.

“They truly believe … this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that they have with President Trump,” Terry said.

Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his fourth visit to Pyongyang, meeting with Kim for three and a half hours. Pompeo said later that North Korea was ready to allow international inspectors to enter the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, which Pyongyang says it has dismantled. He also said he discussed organizing a second summit between Trump and Kim, though he did not mention a specific date or location.

North Korea has made some concessions to the United States since the start of talks with the Trump administration, including returning the remains of some U.S. service members who died in the 1950-1953 Korean War, releasing three detained Americans, and halting missile tests.

But Kim has not agreed to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program or give up its nuclear material.

Some in Congress are growing restless. “We are growing impatient with all these fake arrangements and all these things that are just a facade and in reality aren’t producing much,” said one senior Democratic congressional staffer.

The staffer also said lawmakers feel Pompeo has kept them in the dark on talks with North Korea. “There’s no engagement with Capitol Hill,” the staffer said. “We still haven’t been briefed on the first [Trump-Kim] meeting.”

A State Department spokesperson disputed these claims, saying Pompeo and his senior staff “maintain regular contact with Congress on the Administration’s policies and engagements regarding North Korea.”

According to several staffers, Democratic lawmakers are preparing to call for more hearings on North Korea if they retake either the Senate or House and push forward legislation that cements congressional oversight on any nuclear deal.

Trump touted his June summit with Kim in Singapore as a major milestone in U.S. efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program. Critics panned the summit and accompanying communiqué as vague and lacking any signs of tangible progress.

Critics of the summit included lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Some felt it bestowed legitimacy on Kim’s rule, while others worried that Trump would hand North Korea major concessions without getting much in return.

In response to the summit, Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Cory Gardner, a Republican on the same committee, introduced legislation over the summer to cement congressional oversight on any deal between Trump and Kim.

“[A]fter the Administration signed a vague joint statement in Singapore without any details on a pathway forward on denuclearization, the need for Congressional oversight is more evident than ever,” Menendez said in a statement accompanying the legislation. The legislation is still pending in the committee.

But Pompeo defended the administration’s policy toward North Korea.

“We made significant progress,” he said from Seoul on Monday following his trip to Pyongyang. “We are further along in making that progress than any administration in an awfully long time.”

Update, Oct. 9, 2018: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer