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NCNK Issue Brief: The New Administration and the New Congress (2008)

US DPRK Policy

The Obama Administration and the 111th Congress

New Appointments, Committee Assignments, etc.


New appointsments chart, last updated April 27, 2009

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President-Elect Obama has signaled that his administration's policy toward the DPRK will build on the policy executed in the last years of the Bush Administration.[1] How that policy will be implemented, however, will not begin to come into focus until key administration appointments have been made and key Capitol Hill positions have been filled.

The chart below lists positions in the administration and Congress that may have an influence on shaping and implementing government policy in the 111th Congress and beyond. (Note that there will not be turnover in every position.) The majority of these positions will have limited or no effect on shaping policy. In some cases, as the positions are filled, we will have a better feel for their relative importance. The combination of stature coming into the job, background, relationships with policy makers in other agencies and other branches of government and personal interest will help to determine the extent of the authority an individual may command. In any case, the people who fill these roles will influence interagency coordination and the ability of Congress and the administration to act together constructively to implement and oversee policy.


While individuals are important, the administration must also decide on a leadership structure. The last two administrations produced several different models. Under President George W. Bush, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific took the lead in shaping and coordinating North Korea policy, with waxing and waning pressure from other branches of the administration. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill both reported to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. In practice, however, Ambassador Hill has often reported directly to the Secretary of State, providing him with greater opportunity to garner high level support.


There were three models under President Clinton. In 1994, President Clinton created the position of "Ambassador at Large" for Robert Gallucci, previously the Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs. (The Ambassador at Large position was modeled after a similar "troubleshooting job" established in the Reagan administration.) Ambassador Gallucci reported directly to the Secretary of State and was placed in charge of a special interagency process for policy-making focusing on North Korea; he was the lead negotiator of the Agreed Framework. Ambassador Gallucci had strong relations with key members of the administration and he had periodic direct access to President Clinton.


In Clinton's second term, Wendy Sherman became Counselor of the United States Department of State and Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State. Her position, as with Gallucci's, granted her high-level access within the administration. Although Sherman was responsible for coordinating North Korea policy she did not, in contrast with Ambassador Gallucci, directly conduct negotiations, which were handled by representatives of different bureaus in the State Department. President Clinton's policy was sharply criticized by the Republican majority in Congress and, in 1999, Congress directed the President to appoint a "North Korea Policy Coordinator." Clinton appointed the well-respected former Secretary of Defense Dr. William Perry; because of his stature, Dr. Perry had unparalleled access and authority while filling this position.


The leadership structure (not just who sits where but who is actually in charge of formulating North Korea policy) might be apparent early or it might not become clear until many positions are filled.


On Capitol Hill one of the most influential positions to change hands will be the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Sen. Biden becomes Vice President. In general, seniority on a committee determines the Chair. However, the next in line, Sen. Dodd, has indicated he will remain Chair of the Senate Committee on Banking. Third in line, Sen. Kerry, may be offered a job in the new administration. The chairmanship would normally pass to Sen. Feingold, the fourth in line. Sen. Byrd has announced that he will step down from the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Sen. Inouye is taking over, leaving a chairmanship vacancy on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology that could ripple over to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. The Democratic Caucus may make announcements the week of November 17. Stay tuned.


Changes in the Republican members on the Senate Appropriations Committee will result in new Republican leadership (known as the "ranking minority member") for at least three of the following four key subcommittees, all of which potentially oversee the funding of US government activities in the DPRK: Agriculture; Defense; Energy and Water; and State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.


Shifts in Congress at the staff level are likely to be widespread and difficult to anticipate. Many Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff and seasoned staff from other committees are expected to seek administration jobs, and some will wind up in powerful positions in State, the National Security Council, or on the Vice President's staff. The people filling the vacancies created by these departures could be critical to shaping the Senate's oversight of North Korea policy in the next Congress. Some of these people may be new to Korea policy issues, which may create a lag in Congress's ability to address the administration's concerns or to implement its requests. Rep. Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has already hired the experienced and knowledgeable Richard Kessler, who has followed Korea policy, to be staff director of that Committee.

Last Updated November 13, 2008

The chart, which is not web-page friendly, is available here.


[1] As Scott Snyder points out, debate between regional experts and non-proliferation experts in the new administration might take place. However, although the Obama Administration will develop its own nuanced approach, an "anything but Bush" reversal is not anticipated.