Downgrading North Korean Human Rights Envoy Limits Policy Options at a Critical Time

Korea Chair Platform

Ambassador Robert King, former special envoy for North Korean human rights issue delivering testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cyber Security Policy on July 12, 2017 | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bryce Thompson, CSIS

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) that he intends to eliminate at least half of the seventy special envoy positions in the Department of State, and that he will “dual hat” other positions.  
Among those special envoys being eliminated, downgraded, or dual-hatted is the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues.  The Secretary of State proposes that the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights assume “the title and functions” of the North Korean Human Rights Envoy.
The Secretary provides vague and general reasons for making the changes in all of the positions, but the letter clearly indicates that the bottom line for the proposal is to cut expenditures.  
Little attention or specific justification is given for most of the proposed cuts and restructuring, particularly for the North Korean human rights envoy.  It certainly cannot be said that the problem of North Korean human rights has been resolved.  At a time when concern about the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one of the highest concerns of U.S. foreign policy, it seems to be a very poor time to cut back on our efforts to deal with it.
I do not have specific knowledge about most of the proposed changes, but as the former Special Envoy for North Korean Human RIghts, I do have a rich background on the role and potential of that specific position.  The Secretary’s proposal would be disastrous for U.S. policy toward the DPRK generally, and particularly our human rights policy .   
The first problem with the Secretary’s proposal regarding the DPRK human rights envoy is a legal one.  The legislation that established the position for North Korean human rights specified that the Special Envoy should be a full time position with rank of ambassador requiring Senate confirmation.  That law expired August 12, but draft legislation to extend the North Korean Human Rights Act has been introduced in the Senate and a House version has already been considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Both of those bills have provisions to extend the North Korean human rights special envoy on the precisely the same terms that existed for the past nine years.  Secretary Tillerson’s proposal to dual hat another State Department official to assume, in addition to duties of the principal position, the duties of the special envoy for DPRK human rights does not meet these very specific legal requirements established by Congress.
The second problem is one of tasking an Under Secretary with the specific responsibilities of the Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights while she or he has a multitude of other responsibilities.  (Thus far, no individual has even been nominated for the Under Secretary position.)  To do the Special Envoy position justice is a full-time position.  The Undersecretary is currently the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues as well as having extensive other responsibility for all human rights, democracy, and civilian security issues.  The bottom line is that Secretary Tillerson’s proposal to give the North Korea responsibilities to the Under Secretary would essentially to eliminate any serious focus on human rights in North Korea.
During more than seven years as the Special Envoy we were able to make remarkable progress in “naming and shaming” the DRPK as a human rights abuser.  With strong U.S. support, we were able to adopt a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council creating a Commission of Inquiry (COI) which examined in public hearings charges of human rights abuse.  This international panel included three distinguished individuals--an Australian High Court justice, a former prosecutor general (attorney general) of Indonesia, and a prominent Serbian human rights leader.  

The report issued by the COI was explicit and identified specific individuals and policies, and the Commission concluded that the government was responsible for crimes against humanity.  We were able to raise North Korean human rights issues in the UN Security Council on three occasions after the COI report was issued.  These successes required considerable effort and coordination with our allies, with other countries, and with the United Nations officials which involved considerable effort of the Special Envoy.  The effect of these steps was to undermine the international standing and credibility of the DPRK and raise questions internally.  An Under Secretary would not have time for the kind of effort that was required.
Over the last several years the United States has increased external information reaching citizens in this most isolated country in the world--a country where access to external information is strictly controlled and in most cases legally forbidden.  This is a country where it is prohibited to listen to foreign radio or television broadcasts, where there is virtually no access to the Internet, and where the limited number of cellphones that are available are aggressively monitored.  Nevertheless, we have increased radio broadcasts and increased access to other external sources of information, and we have credible indications that this information is reaching the North.
These successes are modest, but they are significant.  They require major efforts in cooperation and coordination with our allies in South Korea, Japan, the European Union, and elsewhere.  Eliminating the full-time special envoy position will mean we will not have a senior official to deal with these problems.     
What Secretary Tillerson is proposing is to take real and effective policy tools that have and can continue to make real differences in the North Korean human rights situation and dilute them by handing them off to an official who already has far too many other things to do.  
It is ironic that at the same time we are hearing proposals from the Secretary of State to eliminate the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor are urging greater diplomatic effort in our policy toward the North.  The size of the DPRK armed forces and its proximity to Seoul and to Japan limits our ability to use military force, but our efforts on human rights and our diplomatic cooperation with our allies give us opportunity to press the DPRK to move in more positive directions.  Eliminating the North Korean Human Rights Envoy only impedes and limits these efforts.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at CSIS. Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State. He was nominated by President Barack Obama, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and served in that position from November 2009 to January 2017. Ambassador King led U.S. efforts to press North Korea for progress on its human rights, U.S. humanitarian work in North Korea, and the treatment of U.S. citizens being held in the North. He represented the United States in international organizations dealing with these issues.

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