For almost a decade, the State Department has had a full-time senior official working solely on the issue of human rights in North Korea. As the crisis over the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons intensifies, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decided the envoy is no longer needed. His decision to downgrade the post has caused a backlash in Congress, where lawmakers from both parties see it as an unwise step backward on an important issue at a critical time.
As part of his broad reorganization of the State Department, Tillerson is removing or reorganizing dozens of “special envoy” offices, he told Congress in a Monday letter that I obtained. Among them is the position of U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, which has been vacant since Jan. 20. State will fold that job into the responsibilities of the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, who also manages several other portfolios.
That undersecretary position is also vacant, along with almost all the State Department top posts. But eventually, the undersecretary would be “dual hatted” and take on the North Korea human rights job, according to Tillerson’s plan. That goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of the North Korean Human Rights Act, which established the position, lawmakers and former officials told me.
But more gravely, it could foretell a steep decline in the amount of time, attention and senior-official-level activity the U.S. government will be spending to advocate human rights in North Korea, where the Kim Jong Un regime is oppressing millions.
“While in general the idea of reorganizing the use of special envoys has merit, North Korea is a special case,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told me. “We need a dedicated special envoy focused specifically on the North Korean government’s systematic and horrific human rights abuses against its own people.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert defended the move and said the department remains deeply concerned about human rights in North Korea. She also pointed out that Tillerson’s plan does not technically violate the law.
“The Secretary believes that integration will make knowledge and resources more accessible, provide clarity in reporting authority, strengthen communication channels, and create a more efficient and integrated diplomacy,” she said.
The 2004 law did not mandate the envoy be full-time, but Congress inserted that the role “should” be a full-time job when it reauthorized it in 2008. In May, Rubio and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) introduced a reauthorization of the bill that is awaiting action by the committee. The law expired Aug. 12.
In addition to reauthorizing the special-envoy position, the bill also instructs the administration to increase efforts to help North Korean refugees and bolster efforts to pump information into North Korea through broadcasting and other means.
Cardin told me the United States should not reduce its spotlight on the widespread and systemic human rights violations being committed by the North Korean government. “We need to empower the State Department to expose and seek accountability for North Korea’s abusive human rights practices, and I am concerned this proposal would fall far short of that goal,” he said.
Robert King, who served as the special envoy from 2009 through this January, said that having a full-time envoy gave voice to the issue inside the government and around the world. “What they are doing is taking the real policy tools that could make real change in North Korea and diluting them by giving them to somebody who already has too many things to do,” he said.
Jay Lefkowitz, who served as the first special envoy for North Korean human rights, during the George W. Bush administration, told me that abandoning American advocacy on human rights foolishly gives away a powerful tool that could be used to pressure Pyongyang. “If you divorce human rights from the equation, you lose significant leverage,” he said.
Moreover, he said, the only real long-term solution to the problem is to encourage real change inside North Korea, by increasing access to information and international engagement with the people there. “The experience we had when battling the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War is an example of where a focus on human rights as part of an integrated economic and military strategy proved to be very effective,” Lefkowitz said.
Not everyone thinks the elimination of a full-time North Korea human rights envoy is a big problem. One former senior State Department official said the envoy never had real authority and never exerted much influence over the greater North Korea strategy. Human rights advocacy has to come from the principals if it is to have substantial effect, the official said.
If the Trump team, Tillerson included, could see human rights advocacy as a strategic asset, rather than a liability, the United States could strengthen its hand diplomatically and maybe even alleviate the suffering of millions of innocent people.