Stop Dawdling—Name a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights

It is well past time for President Biden to appoint a U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights with rank of ambassador. The president has now been in office for nearly a year and a half—and still no candidate has been nominated for that position. The last time the United States had a special envoy was on January 13, 2017—the day my resignation as special envoy took effect, just a few days before Barack Obama left the White House at the conclusion of his tenure as president. That was five and a half years ago.

The Special Envoy Post Is Established in U.S. Law

The North Korea Human Rights Act was initially adopted by Congress in the fall of 2004, and the legislation called for appointment of a special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. In August 2005, President Bush appointed Jay Lefkowitz as “special envoy on human rights in North Korea,” a position he held while continuing his law practice in New York City. When the legislation was reauthorized in 2008, Congress changed the legal requirements and specified that the special envoy was to be a full-time position at the Department of State, and the individual in that position would hold the rank of ambassador, requiring confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, proposed eliminating the North Korea human rights position, which provoked a bipartisan outcry from Congress. He did not remain in office long enough to get beyond that initial proposal. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s second secretary of state, dropped Tillerson’s reorganization plan, but made no effort whatsoever to secure the appointment of a special envoy for North Korean human rights. When questioned about the issue at congressional hearings, he disingenuously played down the human rights atrocities in North Korea. The effort to improve relations with Pyongyang by ignoring egregious human rights abuses and holding two summits with Kim Jong-un was a dismal failure.

Ironically, in June 2018, in the midst of this lack of action from the Trump administration, Congress approved legislation reauthorizing the North Korea Human Rights Act, including the provision for confirmation of a special envoy for North Korean human rights issues with rank of ambassador at the Department of State. The legislation was approved by “unanimous consent” in the Senate, and the only recorded vote taken in the House of Representatives on this issue approved it by a vote of 415 to 0. The legislation was signed by Trump in July 2018. Despite the law’s requirement for appointment of a special envoy, Trump retired two and a half years later in January 2021 without ever nominating an individual to fill the position.

Biden Administration Expressed Support for the Human Rights Envoy

After the inauguration of Joe Biden as president, the new administration made reassuring noises that the position of special envoy for North Korea human rights issues would be filled. When Antony Blinken made his first foreign trip as secretary of state to South Korea in March 2021, he told a South Korean journalist from KBS that “President Biden has been very clear from day one that he was determined to put human rights and democracy back at the center of American foreign policy. North Korea, unfortunately, is one of the most egregious human rights situations that we know around the world.” 

Three months later in June 2021, in an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken was questioned about the human rights envoy. He said the administration would follow the law and President Biden would nominate a North Korean human rights envoy. At that time, nearly six months into the new administration and with no indication of progress on appointment of the special envoy, Blinken blamed what he called a “laborious” vetting process as the reason why a special envoy had not yet been named. 

The “laborious” vetting process has not stopped the administration from making other appointments and securing congressional approval for individuals nominated for other special envoy positions. The administration announced its nominees for special envoy for international religious freedom and the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism in July 2021. The religious freedom envoy was confirmed in December 2021, and the envoy on anti-Semitism was confirmed in March 2022. 

The secretary of state’s statement about the “laborious” vetting process for the North Korea human rights ambassador was made one full year ago, and there has been no indication yet that the administration is any closer to making a nomination. The president and the secretary of state are surrounded by highly competent officials who conduct the vetting, and when vetting is carried out and decisions are made, it does not require a year. The bloody conflict in Ukraine has taken a toll on the focus of senior foreign policy officials, but senior officials need to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” to cite Lyndon Johnson’s comment about a member of Congress when he was president.

In this era of hyper-partisanship, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas brought ambassadorial confirmations to a grinding halt for several months. The Washington Post explained, “The delays stem from threats by some Republican senators, led by Ted Cruz (Tex.), who has been angling for a fight with the Biden administration over matters of national security. That is prolonging the usually routine process of getting ambassadors formally installed.” Senator Cruz was also roundly criticized by the New York Times (“Empty Desks at the State Department, Courtesy of Ted Cruz”), the Texas Tribune (“U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz delays dozens of President Joe Biden’s ambassador nominations, stoking feud over national security”), as well as by most other media and commentators. 

Cruz’s blocking of ambassadorial appointments was unpopular with many of his Senate colleagues, and his delaying tactics were finally abandoned several months ago. In fact, the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Philip Goldberg, was nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate in less than three months. The nomination was announced February 11, 2022, and the nomination was confirmed by a voice vote of the Senate on May 5, 2022. 

Bipartisan Congressional Support for North Korea Human Rights Act

In this era of frenzied partisanship, the North Korea human rights legislation, which established the position of special envoy for North Korean human rights, continues to enjoy remarkably broad support on both sides of the political aisle. In 2018, the North Korea Human Rights Act was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support. The legislation will expire later this year if it is not reauthorized by law. Legislation has already been introduced in both the House and Senate to extend the provisions of the act for another five years.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, legislation was introduced on March 31, 2022, by Representative Young Kim (R-CA), with the democratic chair of Subcommittee on Asia of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ami Bera (D-CA). The reauthorization bill (117th Congress, H.R. 7332) extends the North Korea human rights provisions of the existing law for an additional five years (2022 to 2027) and updates the language, but fundamental provisions remain the same, including the requirement for the appointment of the special envoy for North Korean human rights.

The Senate companion bill (117th Congress, S. 4216) was introduced two months later on May 12, 2022, by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tim Kane (D-VA). Both are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The two bills are twin versions of the same legislation. With identical bills in the House and Senate, and with both Democrats and Republicans supporting the legislation in both houses of Congress, the prospect for adoption of the reauthorization legislation is very good.

One of the new requirements in the reauthorization legislation is that the administration must deliver a report to Congress “within 180 days” of the passage of the bill “on progress towards appointing a special envoy for North Korean human rights, which has remained vacant since 2017.” That requirement is a politically polite way of emphasizing to the president and his administration that Congress supports the appointment of the special envoy and expects the president to move quickly to make the special envoy nomination.

And the Special Envoy Is . . . ?

A few months ago, Voice of America journalists queried the office of the State Department spokesperson about the status of President Biden’s appointment of the special envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The email response from the spokesperson was a typical bureaucratic nonanswer: “I don't have any administrative announcement or updates at this time.  . . . We remain concerned about the human rights situation in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and the United States is committed to placing human rights at the center of our foreign policy.” Six months later, that “concern” still has not led to any action for the appointment of a special envoy.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, responded to the Biden administration’s dawdling on the appointment of the special envoy with this particularly appropriate observation: “For an administration that claims to care greatly about promoting human rights and democracy in the world,” it is critical that it “immediately act to nominate a person well versed in human rights issues in North Korea to take on this important position.”

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).

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