Naming a North Korea human rights envoy is a critical and overdue step

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North Korea repeatedly made the headlines in January, with a series of seven missile tests, demonstrating that its ongoing efforts to develop a more robust arsenal continue. Its latest missiles put American forces in Guam and Okinawa well within reach, not to mention key allies in Japan and South Korea. As Washington debates how to deal with a defiant Kim regime, the Biden administration has neglected a key lever — human rights.

Congress established the position of the special envoy for North Korean human rights when it enacted the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. That legislation, which also authorizes a pathway for North Korean refugees to resettle in the United States and funds projects to increase information inside North Korea, has been extended three times since and signed into law by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It has overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress each time it has been reauthorized.

But the special envoy position has been vacant since Jan. 20, 2017, when the mandate of Obama’s able appointee, Ambassador Robert King, expired. While there was a fleeting elevation of human rights concerns during the Trump administration, they were soon sidelined, as the White House engaged in a series of ultimately unproductive top-level summits with the North Korean dictator.

While Trump’s indifference on the human rights issue was evident, it is unclear why the Biden administration has failed to nominate a candidate for this vital position. More than a year after the inauguration, the special envoy slot remains vacant, along with a host of other senior positions at the State Department. Similarly, there is no U.S. ambassador in Seoul, South Korea. The current special envoy on North Korea, a separate position from the human rights envoy, is currently held part-time by the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

Congress created the special envoy position to elevate the issue of human rights and ensure they formed part of the calculation of U.S. policy on North Korea. By law, the envoy position was created to “coordinate and promote efforts to improve respect for the fundamental human rights of the people of North Korea.” The specific duties of the role include engaging with North Korean officials regarding human rights; working with international partners and non-governmental organizations; and supporting implementation of the recommendations of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

By failing to fill the special envoy position, the Biden administration is ignoring the will of Congress and missing a key point of leverage. Human rights are the Achilles’ heel of the Kim regime. Historically, criticism over North Korea’s abysmal record has proven to be an issue that embarrasses the leader and by extension, the North Korean state.

And make no mistake, North Korea’s record is terrible. The independent watchdog group Freedom House scored North Korea at 3 out of a possible 100 in terms of civil liberties and political freedoms. Citizens enjoy none of the basic freedoms, like freedom of expression or worship, which Americans take for granted. A vast network of political prisons awaits those who dare to listen to a foreign radio broadcast or speak out against the regime. Conditions have worsened even further during the pandemic, as North Korea has sealed its borders, reducing already scant supplies of food and fuel as well as tightening its monopoly on information.

Elevating human rights is a useful tool in dealing with Pyongyang. Equally important, it is the moral thing to do. More than 20 million North Koreans are suffering under the yoke of a cruel dictatorial regime. The United States should stand squarely with them, shining light on their abuse and working toward a day when they can live in freedom and prosperity.

In his inaugural address, President Biden said, “We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world,” pledging that we will stand once again as a beacon to the world.

At a time when North Korean saber rattling is on the increase, as it continues to refine and perfect its missile capabilities, the United States needs every possible tool in its arsenal. Nominating a special envoy on North Korean human rights is an important step toward fulfilling that inaugural promise — as well as living up to our principles — and the president should quickly send a nominee to the Senate for an equally quick confirmation. Having a special envoy in place can help pressure the North Korean regime, promote U.S. strategic objectives, as well as provide a source of hope to the North Korean people.

Lindsay Lloyd is the Bradford M. Freeman director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.

Tags Barack Obama Diplomacy Donald Trump Human rights International Joe Biden Lindsay Lloyd North Korea South Korea

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