Update on North Korean Human Rights on the First Anniversary of the Biden Inauguration

January 20, 2022, marks the first anniversary of the swearing in of Joseph R. Biden as president of the United States. Last month also marked the 10th anniversary of the elevation of Kim Jong-un to supreme leader of North Korea following the death of his father in December 2011, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in will step down following the elections in two months on March 9. That makes this a particularly appropriate time to look at the status of U.S. policy on North Korean human rights. Has the change in U.S. presidents made a difference, and what can be expected in the next year?

In December 2020, following the U.S election, but a month before the inauguration of President Biden, I made recommendations on the human rights agenda for the incoming president—appoint a special envoy on North Korean human rights, reengage with the United Nations on human rights in North Korea and elsewhere, improve U.S. international information efforts, and encourage government and private humanitarian assistance. Where does that stand one year later?

In looking at North Korean human rights issues, keep in mind that this is not the only issue President Biden has pressing for attention. He entered the Oval Office at a turbulent time in U.S. history. As he reaches his first anniversary in office, the United States is also marking the first anniversary of the U.S. Capitol insurrection as a House panel seeks to spotlight what happened and why. At the same time, the country is coping with the health consequences of the fourth upsurge of the Covid-19 virus, while seeking to contain the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic and encourage vaccinations in a highly politicized atmosphere. In foreign policy, the White House is trying to dissuade the Kremlin from hostile military action in Ukraine and pressing Beijing on its rollback of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and its increased pressure on Taiwan. U.S. troops left Afghanistan in a messy departure, and the United States is attempting to negotiate a resumption of the nuclear limitations on Iran. 

Despite the full domestic and international agenda, the North Korean human rights issue remains an important U.S. foreign policy priority. The administration has shown significant improvement in two areas, while in two others, there is need for improvement.

U.S. Engagement with the United Nations on Human Rights in North Korea: Significant Improvement

The United Nations organization has been a critical force in pressing for human rights progress, and this is particularly true in the case of North Korea. Just a few weeks after the Biden inauguration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States would reengage with the UN Human Rights Council. The United States was elected to a seat on the council in October 2021 after U.S. officials announced that the United States would seek membership in the organization. On January 1, 2022, the United States officially took one of the 47 seats on the Human Rights Council. The previous administration withdrew from any involvement or participation in council activities in 2018.

In March 2021, when the UN Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution that criticized North Korea for abusing its own citizens’ human rights, the United States supported the resolution. South Korean press reports highlighted the fact that the United States was again active on North Korean human rights issues in the council and noted that South Korea had not supported resolutions that were critical of North Korea since 2018.

Furthermore, since the beginning of the Biden administration, U.S. diplomats have been vocal in discussing North Korean human rights abuses and vocal in supporting criticism of North Korea in the UN General Assembly and Security Council. In December 2021, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that was critical of North Korea’s human rights issues. The United States cosponsored the statement, and a U.S. representative gave a strong statement supporting the resolution.

From 2014 to 2017, the UN Security Council held a special session annually devoted to North Korean human rights, and the United States led the effort encouraging the Security Council to discuss these human rights abuses. During the Trump presidency, U.S. diplomats at the United Nations blocked Security Council discussion of North Korea’s human rights abuses. In mid-December 2021, the United States played a leading role in the Security Council’s discussion of North Korean human rights. Although only 6 of the 15 Security Council members supported having the discussion in a public session and 9 member countries are required to make it public, the United States played a leading role in focusing attention on North Korea, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made the statement on behalf of those countries supporting the public discussion of North Korean human rights immediately after the closed meeting. This change in U.S. actions represents a significantly more active U.S. role at the United Nations in dealing with human rights in North Korea.

U.S. International Broadcasting Directed to North Korea: Significant Improvement

Access to international information is particularly important for improvement in human rights in North Korea. The country is one of the most hostile environments for freedom of information in the world. The respected international organization Reporters Without Borders ranks North Korea as 179th out of 180 countries in the world, making it one of the most restrictive countries in the world in terms of access to information, ahead of only Eritrea. Reporters Without Borders concluded that the North Korean “totalitarian regime continues to keep its citizens in a state of ignorance.” 

Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, which are elements of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), broadcast daily radio programming in Korean directed into North Korea. This broadcasting, along with daily transmissions from South Korea and some from China, is among the most important sources of outside information reaching North Korean citizens. An indication of the importance of international radio broadcasting in breaking the Kim regime’s information monopoly is the extent to which Pyongyang goes to discourage listening to foreign radio broadcasts

A particular threat to U.S. international broadcasting efforts, including those directed toward North Korea, was the Trump administration’s appointment of Michael Pack, a documentary filmmaker, as CEO of the USAGM in June 2020. He fired the heads of news outlets under his control, including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. He installed Trump loyalists in all key positions and he eliminated the nonpartisan board that oversees USAGM. Pack spent millions of taxpayer dollars on law firms hired to investigate journalists for purported bias against Donald Trump. He also ignored, changed, or eliminated USAGM rules that protected journalists from political interference.

Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are an important source of information, but their credibility with listeners requires that they provide accurate, timely, and unbiased information. Pack said that the policies he implemented as CEO of USAGM would give greater prominence to editorials reflecting the views of the Trump administration. Such politicization of the news and information programs lowers credibility for U.S. broadcasts to North Korea and elsewhere.

Although Pack was only in office for seven months, Biden requested and received his resignation within two hours after the new president was sworn into office on January 20, 2021. That change of leadership has been followed by a restoration of the principles and practices that were in place at USAGM prior to Pack’s appointment. Changes in USAGM leadership are bringing information professionals back into leadership of the organization.

Encourage Humanitarian Assistance to North Korea: Covid-19 Restrictions Prevent Aid

Living conditions in North Korea are horrible. Severe food shortages and lack of life-saving medicines are the consequence of difficult weather conditions and the plunge in imports from abroad. International sanctions on Pyongyang imposed by the UN Security Council for the country’s illegal nuclear and missile development programs have created brutal living conditions for the vast majority of North Koreans. U.S. unilateral travel sanctions against North Korea have made it difficult for U.S. humanitarian organizations to operate in North Korea, and external aid has declined precipitously. 

Some of the problems with aid and commerce involving North Korea are the result of the Covid-19 pandemic and counterproductive policies enacted by the Kim regime. In his report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021, Tomás Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, suggested that Covid-19 prevention measures in North Korea have “resulted in a drastic decline in trade and commercial activities” as well as “severe economic hardship to the general population, causing increased food insecurity.” The stringent Covid-19 prevention measures are the regime’s response to protect North Korea’s fragile healthcare system and its weak economy. 

In late January 2020, in a draconian effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19, North Korea closed its borders. Border security has been enhanced and border guards have been instructed to shoot to kill those attempting to cross in or out of the country. North Koreans have reportedly been shot for simply entering the buffer zone near the border. Shortly after tighter border controls were imposed, a South Korean official was shot and his body burned after his boat entered North Korean territorial waters. A significant portion of foreign diplomats have left North Korea, and departing diplomats are generally not being replaced. North Korean policies on the Covid-19 pandemic make it quite clear that the government is unlikely to allow U.S. citizens or visitors of other nationalities to enter the country as long as the pandemic continues to rage. 

As a result of these conditions inside North Korea throughout the pandemic, the Biden administration has little opportunity to improve the availability of humanitarian assistance, either by providing aid directly from the U.S. government or by making it easier for private U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea and otherwise engage in humanitarian activities. A clear indication of the lack of interest from Pyongyang in any humanitarian aid at this time is the fact that three million doses of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccines offered by China were rejected by North Korea.

Appointment of a Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights: Still Waiting

The appointment of a special envoy on North Korean human rights is important to assure the participation of a senior advocate for human rights in the process of formulating and implementing U.S. policy on North Korea. That was the intention of Congress when the position was created in the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 and in subsequent reauthorizations of that legislation. The special envoy position for North Korean human rights was left vacant for the entire four years of the Trump administration, although in 2018, Trump signed the legislation reauthorizing the North Korean Human Rights Act, which included a provision requiring the appointment of the special envoy.

At the time Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first foreign trip as secretary to South Korea in March 2021, he told South Korean broadcaster KBS in an interview 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 an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken said the administration would follow the law, and President Biden would nominate a person to be the North Korean  human rights envoy. There is little doubt that Biden will nominate the special envoy.

The lack of a nomination so far does not seem to be the fault of President Biden or Secretary Blinken. The problem seems to be the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate and the current highly polarized politics in that body. At the end of October (nine months after his inauguration) when President Biden went to Europe for key international meetings including the G20 Summit in Rome and the UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow, the United States had ambassadors in only 4 of the 19 other countries that make up the G20 and only four of Biden’s scores of ambassadorial appointments had been approved by the U.S. Senate. At the same time in his predecessor’s tenure, 22 ambassadors had been appointed.

The real issue holding up senate confirmations are the actions of Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and secondarily Josh Hawley (R-MO), who have used the Senate rules to prevent a vote or any other action on ambassadorial nominations. A Boston Globe editorial criticizing the actions of Cruz and Hawley was entitled “U.S. ambassadors, State Department officials held hostage.” The editorial begins: “Donald Trump spent the four years of his presidency hollowing out the State Department. Now as Joe Biden attempts to once again make the United States a player on the world stage, Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are continuing the mission of decimating the nation’s foreign policy apparatus.” Finally, just before leaving Washington for Christmas a few weeks ago, 54 pending ambassadorial nominations were confirmed by the Senate. Unfortunately, there are still 38 more nominations still awaiting Senate approval. 

The Biden administration was cautious about nominating additional ambassadors when Cruz and Hawley were preventing action on nominations that had already been made and were waiting for Senate action. With scores of ambassadorial nominations awaiting approval by the Senate, there is benefit to not further clogging the system with additional nominations that also will not move forward. Now that the gridlock appears to have been broken, a nomination for special envoy for North Korean human rights likely is not far behind. It is the arcane politics and procedures of the Senate, rather than any question about the wisdom and value of the special envoy, that has delayed their appointment. But now is the time for the president and secretary of state to make good on their promises to name the special envoy for North Korean human rights.

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.

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