Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Confirmed by the Senate, but Still Not in Office at the State Department

In January 2023, President Joe Biden nominated Julie Turner to be the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues. She is a career official at the Department of State and well-qualified for the position. I was the last Special Envoy, and I resigned from that position in January 2017 at the end of the Obama Administration. Julie Turner’s nomination and confirmation finally came, but that position has been vacant for over six and a half years.

In July 2018 then-President Donald Trump signed legislation reauthorizing the North Korea Human Rights Act, extending its provisions for another four years. The law called for the appointment of a Special Envoy with rank of ambassador to focus on North Korea human rights issues, a requirement which had been in previous versions of the legislation since 2008. That legislation expired in 2022 without the appointment of the Special Envoy for the entire four-year period that the 2018 legislation was valid.

President Donald Trump failed to nominate a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights for the entire four years of his presidency. His first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a public proposal to restructure the State Department to make it more efficient. Tillerson sent a letter to the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee informing him that he planned to eliminate half of the existing special envoy positions for specific high profile foreign policy issues, including the envoy for North Korea human rights. The U.S. Congress had created in law many of those positions which Tillerson planned to eliminate, and the vigor of the Congressional response to Tillerson’s reorganization could be heard all the way from Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom. 

Before long, Secretary Tillerson was “invited” by the Trump White House to find employment elsewhere, and his proposed restructuring of the State Department was quickly abandoned. In July 2018 Trump signed legislation approved by House and Senate extending the North Korea Human Rights Act for another four years. But he ignored the legislative provision calling for the appointment of a human rights Special Envoy, and the position remained vacant for Trump’s entire term in office.

When Joe Biden stepped into the Oval Office in January 2021, he came with a much more refined sensitivity regarding the importance of the role of Congress. He had been a member of the U.S. Senate for 36 years, and he was the lead Democratic senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the North Korea Human Rights Act was first adopted in 2004. In a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Biden’s new Secretary of State in March 2021, Secretary Antony Blinken was questioned by Congresswoman Young Kim (R-California) who urged the appointment of the North Korea human rights envoy “as quickly as possible.” Blinken told her, “This is an issue I feel strongly about, and I agree with you.” 

Despite that agreement, the Biden administration did not move quickly to appoint a North Korea human right envoy. The nomination of Julie Turner was finally submitted to the U.S. Senate in January 2023—a full two years into President Biden’s four-year term. The Senate confirmation was a slow process, thanks in large part to the intensified partisanship and dysfunction of the U.S. Senate in recent years. The confirmation hearing for nominee Julie Turner was finally held five months after the nomination was sent to the Senate in mid-May 2023. A pro-forma voice vote to confirm her required more than two additional months before her Senate confirmation was completed.

The U.S. Senate was more efficient fifteen years ago when my nomination as Special Envoy for North Korea human right was submitted to the Senate on September 25, 2009. I had preliminary meetings with several senators and committee staff members, and my confirmation hearing along with three other ambassadorial nominees took place about six weeks later. The Senate voted by voice vote to confirm me a couple of weeks later on November 20, 2009. My confirmation required less than two months. In contrast, Julie Turner’s confirmation required more than six months.

State Department Dawdles and the North Korea Human Rights Post is Still Vacant

“Swearing-in” is not a complicated process. I was sworn-in as Special Envoy for North Korea human rights on November 24, 2009. The U.S. Senate voted to confirm me on Friday November 20, and the following Tuesday November 24, I took the oath of office. This was my “official” swearing-in. The Deputy Secretary of State administered the oath to me in his office. My wife and one of my sons were present along with two other State Department officers whom I would be working with. The swearing-in took about five minutes. We chatted for a few minutes longer, and I was officially in office. Two weeks later I had a “ceremonial swearing-in” event at the diplomatic reception rooms of the State Department with over a hundred family members, friends and U.S. and Korean officials. 

Julie Turner was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on July 27, 2023. It is now more than 60 days since her Senate confirmation, and she still has not yet been sworn in. Just when there was a sigh of relief that we would soon have a new Special Envoy in place, we are still waiting for the State Department to act. 

Within a few months after South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in mid-2022, Professor Lee Shin-hwa was appointed and sworn-in as South Korea’s Ambassador for North Korea Human Rights issues. South Korea has refocused attention on North Korean human rights in the United Nations and its international policies. And the change came quickly after the new administration assumed office.

The first two years of the Biden administration have been far more sluggish in moving on North Korean human rights. This is not an issue that the Secretary of State or the most senior State Department officials would focus on, but clearly having a special envoy confirmed but still not taking the oath of office for well over two months ought to be sufficiently embarrassing that someone should rattle the cage and arrange for the Special Envoy to be sworn in. It makes the State Department look bureaucratic and inefficient. The Special Envoy should be in New York City in late October when the annual report from the UN Special Rapporteur on DPRK Human Rights is discussed in the General Assembly’s Third Committee. There are human rights events sponsored by the South Korean government at which the U.S. Special Envoy should participate on behalf of the United States.

It is time to end this bureaucratic delay within the State Department. It is time for Ambassador Turner to take the oath of office and function as the U.S. Congress intended when this important position was created.

North Korea Human Rights Act Expired in 2022— No Signs that Congress is Moving to Reauthorize the Law

Another issue that relates to the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights is also victim to the dysfunction we are observing in Washington, D.C. That is the failure of the U.S. Congress to adopt an extension or “reauthorization” of the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2022. 

Current Congressional rules do not allow policy legislation to be enacted in perpetuity. When the North Korea Human Rights Act was first adopted in 2004, the legislation was valid for four years, and it expired after that date. The logic is that if programs and policies that were established were still considered valuable by the Congress, the legislation should be reauthorized or re-approved and updated periodically. The first North Korea Human Rights Act was adopted in 2004, it was reauthorized in 2008 with a few relatively minor changes, including the provision that the Special Envoy hold the rank of ambassador and be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In 2012, the legislation was again reauthorized, this time for a five-year period. 

When that legislation was about to expire in 2017, Legislation was introduced to extend the act for another four years. This was during the Trump administration, and efforts to restructure the State Department and eliminate the North Korea Human Rights envoy were under consideration by then Secretary of State Tillerson. The North Korean Human Rights Act was reauthorized in 2018 for the period through 2022. President Trump signed the bill into law in 2018, although as we noted, he did not appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights as required in the law during the entire four years of his tenure as President. Efforts were made in Congress during 2021-2022 again to reauthorize the North Korea Human Rights Act. The Senate version of the legislation was adopted in the U.S. Senate at the end of 2022, but it was not considered in the House of Representatives. 

With the beginning of the new Congress in January 2023, legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate to reauthorize the North Korea Human Rights Act. In March 2023, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) introduced legislation to extend the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 through 2028. In the House of Representatives, Congressman Young Kim (R-California) with Congressman Ami Bera (D-California) have introduced similar legislation in April of this year. 

It is particularly noteworthy that the Senate and House versions of the legislation to extend the North Korea Human Rights Act are bipartisan in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The sponsor of the bills and the leading cosponsor are of different political parties. It is also noteworthy that Congressman Young Kim raised North Korea human rights and this reauthorization legislation in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April of this year.

The bipartisan agreement in both House and Senate, with both Republicans and Democrats recognizing the value and importance of North Korea Human Rights legislation and the appointment of a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights might be a helpful move to improve the political atmosphere in Washington. There certainly is no danger or political risk in having the Special Envoy sworn-in and functioning in her office.