When Will the United States Have a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights?

In June 2018, the United States Congress adopted legislation extending (“reauthorizing”) the North Korea Human Rights Act. Among its provisions, the legislation continued the requirement for the president to appoint, with Senate confirmation, a special envoy for North Korean human rights with rank of ambassador within the Department of State. The legislation was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate, and the only recorded vote on the reauthorization legislation taken in the House of Representatives approved it by a vote of 415-0. The legislation was signed by then-president Trump in July 2018. 

At the end of Trump’s four-year term in office, however, he had never actually nominated a special envoy for North Korean human rights despite having signed the legislation requiring such an appointment. Earlier, Trump’s first secretary of state Rex Tillerson proposed that the North Korean human rights position be formally abolished, and the second Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo simply ignored the legislative mandate for the special envoy and avoided press and congressional questions about filling the post.

In March of this year, two months after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, a bipartisan group of a dozen House members sent a letter to the president and the secretary of state calling for the appointment of the North Korean human rights envoy. About that same time, leaders of Human Rights Watch and a number of other prominent international human rights organizations called on the new administration to give greater emphasis to North Korea’s human rights abuses and to prioritize appointment of the U.S. North Korean human rights envoy.

President Biden’s secretary of state Antony Blinken made his first foreign trip as secretary to South Korea and Japan in March. In an interview in connection with that trip, he was asked about North Korean human rights. Blinken responded, “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.” In an appearance before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee soon after that on June 8, Blinken said the administration intended to follow the law, and a human rights envoy for North Korea would be appointed. 

Hardly a week goes by that I do not get a call from a journalist asking why Biden has not yet named a human rights envoy for North Korea, what this means in terms of the Biden administration’s human rights commitments, and when such an appointment will be made. I have no special insight into the status or timing of such administration personnel questions, but based on my experience in Washington, the selection of a human rights envoy is not behind schedule.

The Senate Confirmation Process

The North Korean human rights envoy by law has the rank of ambassador, and that requires her or him to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the process that is required for almost all senior appointed U.S. government officials. The number of appointees requiring Senate approval is large: the official congressional list of such appointments (United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, popularly called the “Plum Book”) lists 1,200 to 1,400 positions that require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, as well as many other appointed positions that do not require Senate approval. 

A total of 256 of the senior positions in the Department of State require Senate confirmation. In addition to senior officials in the department, U.S. ambassadors to foreign countries and representatives to international organizations require Senate action. For this reason, the State Department has the largest number of officials in U.S. government agencies requiring Senate approval. The Department of Defense requires Senate confirmation for only 62 senior positions, although it is by far the largest U.S. government agency with 2.86 million military and civilian employees. The Department of State in contrast has a total 69,000 foreign service, civil service, and local national employees.

About two-thirds of the ambassadorial positions at the State Department are filled by career foreign service officers or other career U.S. government foreign policy personnel. These individuals also must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate if they are appointed to an ambassadorial position. About one-third of ambassadorial positions are filled by “political appointees”—individuals who are not career foreign service officers. These ambassadors are generally experienced foreign policy specialists who are not drawn from the foreign service, but some in all administrations are appointed for political reasons rather than expertise. 

The general practice is that career foreign service officers who hold ambassadorial appointments do not change when a new president assumes office. They serve a normal three-year term, and they are generally replaced by other career officials as the position becomes vacant. 

When an individual is nominated for an ambassadorial position, whether they are a career diplomat or political appointee, the president formally notifies the U.S. Senate that a specific person is nominated for a specific post. The president requests that the Senate give its “advice and consent.” Since it is politically embarrassing for a president to have a nominee rejected by the Senate, individuals are thoroughly vetted before they are nominated. 

When nominations are received by the Senate, they are referred to the appropriate Senate committee, which in the case of State Department nominations is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Staff of the committee conduct a thorough review of a nominee’s background and qualification, including requesting information from law enforcement and other government agencies, universities, and private employers. 

When the vetting is completed, the committee holds a public hearing at which the nominee is questioned by senators. For cabinet members, such hearings may last more than a day, but for positions of lesser prominence, two or three nominees will be questioned for a couple of hours by several senators. Invariably, questions come up that require subsequent written responses to be submitted by the nominee. 

After this confirmation hearing and its follow-up, the committee holds a formal meeting at which committee members vote to approve or reject the individual nominees. If the committee votes to approve the nominee, the nomination is scheduled for debate and vote by the entire Senate, which usually takes a minimum of an additional week or two to schedule following the committee vote. The time required from the presidential announcement of a nomination until the Senate votes to confirm or reject an individual is usually about three months for routine, non-controversial nominations. Problematic nominations can take many more months.

The online Biden Political Appointee Tracker, which is maintained by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, identifies most of the positions requiring presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. The status of these appointments is frequently updated.

My Timeline for Senate Confirmation in 2009 

When I was confirmed as special envoy for North Korean human rights in the Obama administration in 2009, I was asked by then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the end of May to accept the position. The background vetting by Diplomatic Security agents began within a week. Although I had a security clearance for a number of years because of my work with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, my background was thoroughly scrutinized. Even though it was 42 years since I graduated from college, agents went back and not only requested the transcript of my courses and grades, but also contacted some of my undergraduate professors to ask about me. Many neighbors and former colleagues from around the United States were also contacted and questioned about me.

Two months later, I was told by the White House that my name would be submitted to the Senate on the first day or two of August before the Senate adjourned for its summer recess. The day the Senate was to be notified, however, I received a call from the White House telling me that former president Bill Clinton was in Pyongyang to secure the release of two U.S. journalists who had been arrested earlier that year. The State Department did not want to make the announcement of my nomination until Clinton was back in the United States. There was concern that announcing the nomination of the human rights envoy might upset North Korean officials, and the release of the detainees might be scuttled. By the time Clinton and the journalists were back in the United States, the Senate was in recess and my nomination could not be sent to the Senate.

The nomination was announced and officially sent to the Senate in late September 2009. My confirmation hearing was held on November 5. The Foreign Relations Committee voted to send my nomination to the full Senate on November 17, and I was confirmed by the Senate by a voice vote on November 20. I was sworn in on November 23, six months after I was initially asked to accept the position by Secretary Clinton.

It took six months from being asked until I was sworn in. And that was despite the fact that Secretary of State Clinton was pressing for quick action because Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) was holding up the confirmation of the nominee for assistant secretary of state for Asia until Secretary Clinton had a nominee for special envoy for North Korean human rights. Senator Brownback had a particular interest in North Korean human rights, and he was the author of the Senate version of the original North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004. Clinton and Brownback exchanged a series of letters on the urgency of appointing the special envoy. Secretary Clinton gave Senator Brownback the assurances he sought that the nomination of an acceptable special envoy was moving forward. Other ambassadorial nominations moved at a slower pace. For example, the nomination and confirmation of the U.S. representative to the UN Human Rights Council was not completed until March 3, 2010, some four months after my confirmation.

Senate Procedures Could Delay Action on the Special Envoy

An indication of the time required to make nominations is the fact that President Biden’s nominations of Rahm Emanuel to serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan and of Nicholas Burns to serve as ambassador to China were only announced by the White House and sent to the Senate on August 20. Both positions are among the most important ambassadorial appointments for the United States. If all goes well (an unlikely scenario), the two are unlikely to be at their embassy posts until at least November. Even under the best of circumstances it takes time to cross the t’s and dot the i’s on an ambassadorial nomination.

Despite statements from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that a North Korean human rights envoy will be appointed, there are several complications that could delay that appointment. Because of the number of foreign policy nominations, the Foreign Relations Committee must pace nominations to allow staff to conduct background investigations and senators to hold hearings to question the nominees. In addition to the large number of State Department nominations, the committee is also dealing with important foreign policy issues, including the U.S. civilian and military withdrawal in Afghanistan and the ongoing international repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Furthermore, acrimonious partisan differences make smooth working of the Senate more difficult. Arcane rules give individual senators the ability to bring Senate confirmation of government officials to a screeching halt. In the current toxic political atmosphere, approving nominees is becoming even more difficult. 

The latest example of this comes from Texas senator Ted Cruz. In protest of President Biden’s decision to waive U.S. sanctions intended to block construction of Nord Stream 2, a joint Russian-German oil and gas pipeline project that the United States had previously opposed, Senator Cruz has used obscure Senate rules to delay the voting on State Department ambassadorial nominations in the Foreign Relations Committee. Cruz has also prevented or delayed the full Senate from voting on nominations the committee has already approved. These delaying and obstruction tactics have nothing to do with the qualifications or views of the nominees; rather, they are an effort to change policy involving another totally unrelated issue. 

The secretary of state is “lighting up Capitol Hill phone lines” and State Department officials are urgently lobbying senators in an effort to break the Cruz log jam. Just before the Senate adjourned in mid-August, Cruz prevented the confirmation of dozens of senior State Department officials, earning him the title of “obstructer in chief.” The Senate now will be unable to take up those nominations until at least mid-September.

The bottom line is that the confirmation process in the Senate is precarious at best, and there are a number of potential problems that could slow down or even stop the confirmation of the special envoy for North Korean human rights. President Biden has reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to human rights. The United States has returned as a participant in the UN Human Rights Council and is seeking to be elected to a position on the council. Secretary of State Blinken has unequivocally said a special envoy for North Korean human rights will be appointed. It is clearly an issue that the administration has specified is a priority. The pitfalls of the Senate confirmation process, however, may require a little additional time.

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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