In North Korea, which remains one of the worst human rights violators in the world, the past two years have seen the government responding to international challenges and the COVID pandemic with deepened isolation and repression. The Kim Jong Un regime imposed severe new restrictions on movement within the country, limits on distributing food and other products, and heightened digital surveillance. Yet advocacy for North Korean human rights has lost momentum, and the Biden administration is yet to fill the role of a Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights — a position established in U.S. law and mandated by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.
Against this backdrop, on October 6, 2022, Shorenstein APARC and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) gathered experts from academia and the policy world to refocus on what the South Korean and U.S. governments can do to address the ongoing North Korean human rights crisis. The conference, North Korean Human Rights at a New Juncture, also explored the human rights implications of North Korea’s response to the COVID outbreak in the country and China’s complicity in North Korea's human rights abuses.
The first panel of the conference, moderated by APARC and Korea Program Director Gi-Wook Shin, highlighted the role of Congress and the U.S. Government in North Korean human rights. It featured Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and a ranking member of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and Frank Wolf, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“We need to remind the Biden administration of the compelling need to integrate human rights into all of its engagement with the North Korean regime,” said Rep. Smith. He also emphasized that “Beijing has continued to play a crucial role in sustaining North Korea’s horrific human rights record.”
The second panel, moderated by Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at CSIS and vice dean and D.S. Song KF Professor of Government at Georgetown University, called attention to the role of special envoys for North Korean human rights in engaging the North Korean regime. It featured Ambassador Shin-wha Lee, South Korea’s ambassador of international cooperation on North Korean human rights, and Ambassador Robert King, a senior adviser with the Korea Chair at CSIS and former U.S. special envoy for North Korean Human Rights.
Ambassador Lee, named to her post in July 2022, two months after President Yoon Suk-yeol took office, emphasized the importance of rallying international support to press North Korea on rights and urged the United States to appoint a special envoy. By filling the role, she said, the United States will give a clear message to North Korea that human rights matter to U.S. foreign policy and help revitalize the European Union's interest in the issue despite its preoccupation with the war in Ukraine.
Lee also underscored the need to resume discussions on North Korean human rights at the United Nations Security Council, where no such dialogue has taken place since 2017. Unfortunately, she said, given the heightened U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia tensions, the prospects for such a discussion are slim, if not impossible. Still, we must push forward to do that, she added.
Ambassador King noted that in the current environment of extreme partisanship, the North Korean human rights legislation continues to enjoy broad bipartisan Congressional support. It is well past time for President Biden to appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights with the rank of ambassador, he said.
Dr. King, a former Koret Fellow in Korean Studies at APARC, is the author of the book Patterns of Impunity, which provides an in-depth overview of his time as a special envoy during the Obama administration. Published by APARC in 2021, the book also traces U.S. involvement and interest in North Korean human rights and the role of the United Nations in addressing the human rights crisis in the country.
APARC and its Korea Program are committed to building a solid foundation of education, knowledge, and dialogue about the North Korean human rights problem. Our publications and event programming are some ways we use to shine a light on the crisis. Another recent APARC publication is The North Korea Conundrum: Balancing Human Rights and International Security. This volume, edited by Dr. King and Prof. Shin, focuses on the intertwining relationship between the North Korean denuclearization and human rights agendas. It draws on the work of scholars and practitioners presented and discussed at a conference on North Korean human rights held by APARC’s Korea Program.
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