Congress Affirms Concern for North Korea Human Rights: Extends Human Rights Act

On July 10 President Trump was presented with the final approved text of H.R. 2061 “to reauthorize The North Korea Human Rights Act” (NKHRA).  The legislation, previously passed by both the House of Representatives and Senate, “reauthorizes” or extends for four years the human rights legislation that was first enacted by Congress in 2004 and reauthorized again in 2008 and 2012. The bill also includes modifications to update the law and to harmonize it with other human rights legislation that has been adopted.  The president is expected to sign the bill into law in the next few days.

The NKHRA was first adopted by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in 2004 to encourage respect for human rights in North Korea by establishing conditions to be met if humanitarian assistance is provided to North Koreans, increasing access to news and information for those living inside North Korea, providing humanitarian or legal aid to individuals who have fled North Korea, and authorizing grants to private nonprofit organizations to promote human rights, democracy, rule or law, and a market economy in the North. The legislation also established the position of special envoy on North Korea human rights issues to coordinate and promote efforts to improve respect for the fundamental human rights of the people of North Korea. (By way of full disclosure, I served as the special envoy on North Korea human rights issues from 2009–2017.)

The extension of the North Korea human rights legislation did not exactly speed through the legislative process. The House version of the bill was introduced on April 6, 2017, and was adopted by the House of Representatives on September 25, 2017. A Senate companion version of the bill was introduced May 11, 2017, but the Senate only acted on the bill in April 2018, and the final version including Senate amendments was finally approved in the House of Representatives two weeks ago, on June 27. 

The length of time required to complete the legislation does not appear to be the result of any controversy. Although this Congress has been notorious for discord and squabbling, the NKHRA was approved unanimously. The only recorded vote on the bill was taken in the House of Representatives, which approved it by a vote of 415 to 0.

Since the legislation was not controversial, the length of time required to approve the legislation seems a bit unusual, particularly since the NKHRA expired at the end of 2017 and it was not reauthorized until six months after it had expired. In 2008 and 2012, the reauthorization legislation was approved by Congress and signed by the president several months before the legislation expired. While North Korea has been particularly critical of the legislation over the years, the effort to improve relations between the United States and the North, which culminated in the Singapore Summit on June 12, did not begin until after extensions had been introduced in both the House and Senate.

One reason for the delay may have been then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s effort to eliminate the position of special envoy for North Korea human rights, which he outlined in a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker. Congress showed little enthusiasm for Tillerson’s proposed elimination of the North Korea human rights post or the many other envoys that he suggested eliminating, downgrading, or “dual-hatting.” It seems unlikely that congressional reauthorization of the NKHRA was delayed because of Tillerson’s proposal. In fact, the House adopted its version of the bill at about the time the Tillerson proposal became public.

The announcement on March 9 of this year that President Trump had agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not seem to have any particular impact on the reauthorization legislation. The Senate approved its version of the NKHRA in early April at the same time meetings were being held between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean officials to work out summit details. The House gave final congressional approval in late June—after the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12 and before Secretary Pompeo’s less-than-cordial follow-up meeting in Pyongyang July 6. The congressional legislative action did not seem related to the president’s summitry or its aftermath. 

At the same time, however, there does not seem to be any congressional effort to time its actions on the NKHRA to highlight North Korea’s human rights abuses in order to dim the afterglow of the Singapore Summit or dampen follow-up efforts. There was no mention of the Trump-Kim summit in statements issued by senators or members of Congress at the time of final action on the HRNK. 

The post of special envoy on North Korea human rights issues has been vacant since January 2017. With the adoption of the NKHRA reauthorization, Congress has reaffirmed its commitment and interest in the appointment of a special envoy to focus attention on North Korea human rights issues. 

This vacancy, however, is not unique. A significant number of senior positions still remain unfilled at the Department of State. Earlier this year, State led all federal government agencies in terms of the number of vacant senior positions. A significant number of these vacancies remain, but there are indications that slots are being filled. Earlier this week, the president submitted to the Senate for confirmation the name of David Hales, a career Foreign Service officer who was serving as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, to be under secretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking position in the department. Does this mean that the president will nominate an individual as special envoy on North Korea human rights?  To use one of the president’s favorite catch phrases, “We’ll see.”

Over the last few months we have seen a shift in President Trump’s interest in North Korea human rights. In January 2018, he met with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office, introduced a North Korean defector during his State of the Union Speech, and devoted a significant portion of that speech to North Korean human rights abuses. In May three American citizens who had been imprisoned by the North on questionable grounds were released as details were being worked out for the Trump-Kim summit. At a media event when the three arrived in the United States, the American president extolled the North Korean leader: “We want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people.” 

“Excellent” treatment of American citizens held in North Korea has not been the usual practice with other American prisoners over the last decade. Kenneth Bae, detained for two full years from 2012 to 2014, wrote a detailed memoir of his imprisonment, and “excellent” is not how anyone would describe his treatment. 

The president’s actions on human rights in these recent cases leads to the conclusion that human rights are not the goal of his policy, but simply a useful tool to achieve other aims. He uses criticism of human rights abuses as a means to pressure the North Korean leader. When he gets what he seeks, criticism of human rights abuses is replaced with effusive praise. 

With the adoption of the reauthorization of the North Korea Human Rights Act, the Congress has emphatically reaffirmed that human rights remains a key element of U.S. policy toward the North, and Congress will continue to press the administration for progress.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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