A North Korean Human Rights Agenda for the Biden Administration

The incoming Biden administration is now just weeks away from assuming the reins of political power in Washington. The new administration has no shortage of gratuitous advice about policies and programs it ought to pursue. Unrequested, I am offering my advice about what ought to be on the agenda for dealing with North Korean human rights in the new administration. One issue that has largely been ignored for the last two and a half years of President Trump’s White House stewardship is human rights in North Korea. In light of that neglect, I offer thoughts on the North Korea human rights agenda for the new administration.

Clearly North Korean human rights is not the top item on the soon-to-be president’s to-do list. The Covid-19 pandemic is the most urgent issue that requires immediate full attention. In the foreign policy realm, reestablishing traditional relations with our NATO allies and with South Korea and Japan are top international priorities. But North Korean issues should not be put off for too long. If past practice holds true, Kim Jong-un is likely to engage in an inflammatory missile or nuclear test or some other provocation early in Biden’s tenure. It would be useful to think about steps on human rights that could be taken early on.

1. Appoint a Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights 

Policy toward North Korea should be developed and implemented with the participation of a senior voice on human rights to assure that these rights issues are part of the formulation and the implementation of U.S. policy. Having an envoy focused on human rights among the senior voices on North Korea policy helps to ensure that human rights implications of U.S. actions are part of the discussion of policy choices. For the full four years of the Trump administration, no North Korean human rights envoy was even nominated. Initially, human rights was used by President Trump as an instrument to secure North Korea agreement on non-human rights issues, and for the last two and a half years, the human rights issue was ignored.

Not only is the appointment of a special envoy a good idea, it is also the law of the land. The North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 specified that “the President shall appoint a special envoy for human rights in North Korea within the Department of State.” It was not a suggestion that the president should consider appointing an envoy, it was a requirement. When the legislation was reauthorized in 2008, 2012, and 2017, the law specified that the special envoy should have the rank of ambassador and was to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Let me issue a quick disclaimer. I am not campaigning for reappointment as special envoy. I served for over seven years in that position until January 2017, and I felt keenly the importance of the work. During the first few years I was able to deal with North Korean officials, but my support (on behalf of the United States) for the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea led Pyongyang to conclude falsely that I was not a friend. An early sign of hope for my efforts was that I was invited to Pyongyang for discussions on humanitarian aid, and I was able to bring back a U.S. citizen detained for nine months in the North. After the Commission of Inquiry was established, however, my photograph was added to those considered hostile by the North. Three proposed trips to North Korea to seek release of an American citizen being held there were initially approved and then cancelled on short notice. The North Korea human rights portfolio needs a new face.

2. Reengage with the United Nations on Human Rights—in North Korea and Elsewhere

The United Nations has been a critical force in pressing North Korea for progress on its human rights record. The best documented and detailed examination of North Korean human rights abuses is the report of the Commission of Inquiry created by the UN Human Rights Council in 2013–2014. In addition, the Human Rights Council has appointed a Special Rapporteur to examine human rights in North Korea since 2004. Every year since then, the Rapporteur has given reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the UN General Assembly in New York.

Over the last four years, the United States has failed to work with United Nations organizations to pursue human rights in North Korea. Two and a half years ago, the United States withdrew from all participation in the UN Human Rights Council, the principal United Nations agency which fosters human rights. It is time for that decision to be reversed.

Furthermore, the Trump administration reversed its position and changed the policy of the previous administration with regard to supporting UN Security Council discussions of North Korea’s human rights abuses. Security Council sessions devoted to this issue were held in December 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. The last session in 2017 was held at the end of the first year of the Trump administration. In 2018, the United States failed to follow through with efforts to hold such a session, and no session was held. In 2019, the United States actually prevented such a discussion from taking place. On December 11 this year, however, the U.S. did an about face and, together with seven other countries, supported a closed discussion in the Security Council on North Korean human rights. It is important for the United States to press consistently for the discussion of North Korea’s human rights violations in the Security Council.

Reengagement with the United Nations should involve the return of the United States to full participation in the UN Human Rights Council. The reason given for U.S. withdrawal was that human rights violators (Russia, China, and others) were allowed to participate. Failure of the United States to be involved in the Human Rights Council has only permitted these violators to have free rein to weaken the Human Rights Council and other human rights efforts. The United States needs to be involved to add its influence in support of those countries who are members and who share its values on human rights.

3. Enhance U.S. International Information Efforts

One of the first priorities—and this is one that does not need to wait—is to replace Michael Pack as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. This is not an issue only for North Korea, but for all U.S. international information efforts. Pack was appointed despite obvious reservations in the U.S. Senate, even from supporters of President Trump.

Access to international information is critical for U.S. efforts to encourage peaceful transition and international cooperation, and it is of particular importance for North Korea. In 2020, the international freedom of information organization Reporters Without Borders ranked North Korea dead last of 180 countries worldwide in terms of freedom of information. In the North, listening to foreign radio or watching foreign television broadcasts is a crime that is severely punished. It is even illegal to own or possess a radio or television set capable of being tuned to any station other than to official North Korean media channels. The extremes to which Pyongyang will go to prevent its people from accessing external information have been well documented.

In spite of vigorous regime efforts to block access to foreign media, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are principal sources of external information reaching the North. But their credibility depends on their providing accurate and timely information. Under the Trump administration, Michael Pack announced that he was implementing policies “to ensure that editorials that reflect the view of Donald Trump’s administration are given greater prominence and placement.” The exemplary free media of the United States has flourished, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to manipulate, manage, and muzzle the U.S. media. The richness and diversity of voices in the United States, however, has not been reflected in U.S. international broadcasting to foreign audiences. That needs to be remedied—and quickly.

The ultimate concern is that by politicizing the news broadcast by U.S. international information organizations to people living under dictatorships around the world, we create the image that United States media mirrors their own tightly controlled and manipulated media. Our international information programs should never be seen as the U.S. equivalent of North Korea’s state media. A multiplicity of voices and views, particularly in broadcasts to other countries, echoes and demonstrates the diversity of what U.S. citizens hear, read, and see in the United States. This is what gives U.S. international media credibility and interest.

4. Encourage Government and Private Humanitarian Assistance

The United States should take steps to encourage and provide humanitarian assistance to the people of North Korea. Living conditions in the North are dire. Food shortages are a fact of life, and they have been made more serious because of worsening weather conditions. North Koreans face health problems related to malnutrition, as well a serious problem with tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. Health care infrastructure, except that available to the small elite living in Pyongyang, is seriously deficient.

Furthermore, enforced isolation and draconian penalties used to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic have made conditions for providing food and medical assistance even more difficult. Most of North Korea’s foreign trade comes through China, and imports from China have fallen 73 percent this year because of concern about the spread of the pandemic. Reportedly, North Korea refused to permit importation of 110,000 tons of rice because of fear of Covid-19 contagion.

Humanitarian programs, including the World Health Organization, some individual government health assistance programs, and private aid donors in the United States and other countries have been involved in helping the people of North Korea for many years. Providing such assistance now, however, is increasingly difficult because of North Korea’s refusal to allow foreigners into the country without prohibitively difficult Covid-19 quarantine requirements. Humanitarian outreach to North Korea should be made, even though it may be a while before the North is willing to accept such help. U.S. legislation governing humanitarian assistance makes clear that aid is not given on the basis of political criteria, but only on the basis of established need and the ability to monitor its distribution. We need to provide help because there is a critical need, and this could help build trust with the North.

U.S. humanitarian assistance suffered a significant decline when the Trump administration imposed a prohibition on travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea in 2017. In 2019, this travel ban was slightly eased, but assistance to North Korea continues to be obstructed by the travel restrictions. As a consequence, U.S. government and private assistance to the North has declined. Under current circumstances, aid to North Korea is not likely to turn around in the near term. It is important, however, that the United States make clear as soon as possible our willingness to provide humanitarian assistance when the North is ready to accept officials involved with providing that aid.

These four steps provide a good beginning for a Biden policy to move forward on human rights efforts in North Korea. While it is not the highest priority in United States foreign policy, it is a priority. Efforts on human rights should be undertaken concurrently as the new administration begins to shape its policy on security issues toward North Korea—not after. Human rights and humanitarian assistance need to be an integral part of our policy toward the North, not an afterthought.

Worse still, human rights must not be seen as an instrument to use against the North to make progress on other unrelated issues, as was the case with the Trump administration. The president criticized Kim Jong-un on human rights in 2017 and early 2018 to pressure for the release of detained U.S. citizens and to push Kim to make concessions on security issues. Human rights must not be raised in a short-term transactional way to make progress on other issues.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser with 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).

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