North Korean Human Rights in the 2018 and 2019 State of the Union Addresses—What a Difference a Year Makes
February 7, 2019
While commentators have observed striking similarities between President Donald Trump’s rhetoric in the State of the Union speech on Tuesday of this week and the one he delivered a year ago in January 2018, there is one area where the differences are striking—on North Korea, and particularly North Korean human rights issues.
This year, the speech included only one brief paragraph on North Korea:
If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong-un is a good one. Chairman Kim and I will meet again on February 27th and 28th in Vietnam.
In the January 2018 State of the Union Address, the president devoted over 10 percent of his speech to North Korea, with a very substantial portion given to human rights abuses: “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.” The president argued that “the depraved character of the North Korean regime” makes its nuclear threat even more dangerous.
Last year, several presidential guests in the House Chamber for the speech who were introduced by the president focused even greater attention upon North Korea’s human rights abuses. The president invited and introduced the parents, brother, and sister of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student who was arrested, tried and imprisoned while a tourist in North Korea. He was returned to his parents 17 months later in an unresponsive comatose state. He died shortly after being brought home to Cincinnati. The president welcomed the parents and siblings as “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world.”
The president then introduced a young man born in North Korea, Ji Song-ho, “another witness to the ominous nature of this regime.” Ji lost his leg after being run over by a train in his effort to find food during the North Korean famine of the 1990s. He was tortured by North Korean security officers after he returned from China where he went in search of food. Subsequently, he made a perilous escape from the North. He completed an arduous trip on crutches across China to Southeast Asia, and ultimately reached South Korea. The president described Ji Song-ho as an example of the many “defectors” who have fled the North to find freedom and security in South Korea and elsewhere.
Three days after the State of the Union Address last year, President Trump invited Ji Song-ho and seven other North Korean defectors to the Oval Office. That meeting was given considerable media attention. The meeting in the Oval Office and devoting a significant amount the president’s time to this event was a key part of the administration’s effort to highlight the North’s human right record. Further emphasizing human rights, a few days later Vice President Mike Pence represented the United States at the opening of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea, and he was accompanied by Otto Warmbier’s father.
The Transactional Use of Human Rights
The striking difference between President Trump’s treatment of North Korea’s human rights abuses in his State of the Union Speech in 2018 and in 2019 underscores his transactional approach to foreign policy issues. He seems to be unable to think in terms of broad long-term consequences of his actions, and he simply acts on the basis of short-term “deals.” Such temporary transactions may make sense for real estate development, but it can definitely be counterproductive in the long run for foreign policy. The consequences of alienating an ally or creating an enemy for some temporary benefit may be far costlier.
Trump’s short-term transactional approach to foreign policy was evident two years ago when the new president made initial phone calls to U.S. allies just a few days after his inauguration. What should have been friendly courtesy calls, in too many cases, turned into contentious exchanges. The Washington Post reported, “In his phone calls with foreign leaders, President Trump has made it abundantly clear that he is less interested in tending America’s long-term relationships than he is in short-term deals.”
This transactional approach was even more obvious recently in Trump’s handling of the blatant officially directed murder of Saudi citizen and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Trump refused to press the Saudi crown prince, who U.S. Intelligence agencies fingered as the senior official responsible for the murder. Trump publicly defended his rejection of the judgment of his own intelligence chiefs, arguing that the U.S. should not alienate Saudi Arabia, which “agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States” including, he claimed, $110 billion on military sales. There were serious questions about the accuracy of his figures, but he clearly saw short-term financial gain and cooperation against Iran as more important than long-standing U.S. support for international legal standards that have been an important principle of U.S. foreign policy for the last century.
Clearly, tackling human rights issues is far down on the list of administration priorities. In retrospect, President Trump’s criticism of Kim Jong-un on human rights last year clearly appears to be simply an effort to use the issue as pressure for the release of U.S. citizens detained in the North. The president’s blustery tirade against “Little Rocket Man” (Kim Jong-un) in his first speech as president to the UN General Assembly in September 2017 and for several months afterward, included strong criticism of North Korea's human rights abuses, was part of that same effort to use human rights and belittling personal invective to soften up the North Korean leader for concessions in other areas.
The unexpected announcement in March 2018 of a forthcoming U.S.-North Korea summit and the subsequent release of three U.S. citizens who had been detained in North Korea was followed by silence on of North Korea’s human rights record. Instead, Kim was praised for the “excellent” treatment of the three U.S. prisoners by the North Koreans. Trump has undermined his personal credibility with his earlier criticism of human rights abuse.
The administration at lower levels has issued sanctions against North Korean officials for human rights violations. These are actions required by law, but the President and other senior officials have stayed away from human rights criticism. When the sanctions were issued in December 2018, the president had nothing to say, the Department of State issued a statement in the name of a deputy press spokesperson, and the Treasury Department issued a written statement including a quotation attributed to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In fact, when those sanctions were issued, it was reported that Vice President Mike Pence was to speak on North Korea’s human rights abuses, but his speech was canceled because of concern to avoid irritating Pyongyang. The official excuse was a scheduling conflict.
Based on how the administration has dealt with North Korean human rights issues during its two years in office, addressing them is not a goal or an objective of Trump’s foreign policy; rather it is simply a tool, a means to achieve other goals when it might be useful.
And the Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Is . . .
In 2004, congressional concern that North Korea’s egregious human rights record was being overlooked by the Bush administration-led Congress to adopt the North Korean Human Rights Act. The legislation specified a number of required administration actions to coordinate and promote greater respect for the fundamental human rights of the people of North Korea. One provision called for the president to appoint a special envoy on North Korean human rights issues at the Department of State. That legislation was reauthorized in 2008 and again in 2012. (In the interest in of full disclosure, I held that position from 2009-2017.)
That North Korean Human Rights Act was again extended nine months ago in July 2018. The timing was interesting. Final congressional action was taken in June 27, 2018—two weeks after the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit in Singapore. In a Congress that was distinguished by its inability to agree on much of anything, this legislation was approved by a vote of 415-0 in the House of Representatives and by unanimous consent in the Senate. President Trump signed the legislation into law six weeks after the Singapore summit. Ironically that action came after an effort by President Trump’s first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to eliminate the special envoy on North Korean human rights issues in 2017.
Thus far, however, the Trump White House has not nominated a person to fill the North Korean human rights envoy position. (The special envoy has the rank of ambassador and requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate.) Part of the problem is that the Trump administration has been notoriously slow to be fill senior positions, even if there is no controversy regarding the position being filled. For example, the U.S. special envoy to monitor anti-Semitism, another congressionally-mandated position, was not filled for over two years, and there have been no indications that there have been any problems with that issue or that position.
White House inaction on the North Korean human rights envoy is consistent with the transactional policy of the president. The North Koreans have made known their dislike of the North Korean Human Rights Act and having a special envoy focused on their human rights record. At the same time, however, the long-term U.S. policy interest is in supporting international standards for human rights and the rule of law. Encouraging international order has long been and still should be a high priority of enlightened U.S. foreign policy. Human rights and respect for international standards of conduct must be more than a throw-away tool for extracting some temporary benefit for the U.S. president.
Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies 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).
© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.