By Michelle Dang, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Eric Ryu, HRNK Research Intern and Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs
August 3, 2021
As the Biden administration has recently affirmed its commitment to fostering a well-grounded U.S. policy toward North Korea, it is critical to revisit the role of the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea and push for the speedy reinstatement of this senior official. Denuclearization will continue to take center stage in the Korean peninsula’s peace process. However, human rights concerns in North Korea will have to be equally addressed if North Korean reintegration into the international community is to be expected. The reappointment of this Special Envoy would highlight the urgency of revitalizing human rights discourses and implementing effective enforcement of existing recommendations and policies.
In a book event hosted by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), Ambassador Robert R. King, former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights, explained the inception of the appointment, grounded in the adoption of the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) in 2004. The NKHRA is dedicated to promoting North Korean human rights. It addresses establishing conditions for humanitarian assistance, amplifying availability of information for North Korean people, authorizing the admission of North Korean refugees, and validating grants to nonprofit organizations whose objectives align with the principles of the Act. The highlight of the NKHRA lies in the designation of the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, whose responsibilities consist of facilitating discussions with North Korean officials and coordinating relevant international efforts. Initially part-time, the 2008 reauthorization of the NKHRA elevated the Special Envoy to full-time ambassadorial rank. The “upgrade” enabled a more comprehensive policy towards North Korea.
Ambassador King was able to raise the human rights concerns with North Korean officials during the course of discussions surrounding humanitarian aid in 2011, and was able to secure the release of Eddie Jun Yong-su, an American detained in North Korea for six months. The release of Eddie was facilitated by robust deliberations on humanitarian aid. The North Korean regime saw opportunities to concede to win favorable outcomes on humanitarian aid, and released Eddie as a “going-away” present, as expressed by Ambassador King in his book “Patterns of Impunity: Human Rights in North Korea and the Role of the U.S. Special Envoy.” As Scott Snyder puts it in “Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior,” “punuigi” (atmosphere) and “kibun” (good feeling) are cultural traits that affect negotiating with North Koreans. Their absence could lead to the practice of “kojip” (intransigence). Eddie’s release is exemplary of this North Korean negotiating behavior. Aside from being a confidence-building measure, this event also signals an avenue for positive changes through negotiations, even when the changes can be seen as hardly sufficient to address the mass suffering of incarcerated North Koreans and other human rights violations. The release of Eddie backdropped with humanitarian aid negotiations suggests a principle of conditionality that will follow through in future agreements with North Korea. Labor standards, aid monitoring mechanisms, and accountability could be later incorporated. The Special Envoy is tasked with maintaining the momentum and mutual commitment shared among stakeholders at this critical juncture when the North Korean regime has demonstrated increased interest in opening up for economic reforms. A condition-based interaction with North Korea with the expectation of concessions on human rights could open a door to a higher likelihood of normalized U.S.- North Korean relations.
The North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 also constitutes a condition-based framework in which sanctions would be lifted if North Korea improved its prisons conditions, released political prisoners, enabled repatriation of abducted foreigners, allowed family reunions, and removed censorship barriers. The Special Envoy’s expertise would further come into play in evaluating the existing instruments leveraged against the North Korean regime and continuing to either enforce them or offer resolutions for the relief of said measures. The Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (UN COI) has also been instrumental in providing substantial guidelines and recommendations in light of its findings.  In 2014, the COI substantiated that the North Korean regime has committed crimes against humanity and other violations of human rights and human dignity. At that point, Ambassador King’s commitment as Special Envoy since November 2009 had shown consistent U.S. support to the human rights cause and thus, resulted in progress that culminated in this UN-sponsored document formally addressing the issues and calling for actions. The U.S. failure to appoint a new Special Envoy under the Trump administration critically undermined the momentum that was built leading to the COI report and thus severely stalled the progress on the human rights front. In an online discussion with HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu, Justice Michael Kirby described the difficulties of implementing the COI recommendations while the situation in North Korea has not reached its post-conflict stage. For the past four years without a Special Envoy, the COI report hasn’t been fully incorporated into the U.S. policy agenda for the Korean peninsula and the crucial next steps contingent on the recommendations of the report have not received the level of attention they deserve.
The attention regarding North Korea has prioritized negotiations over nuclear weapons and other security concerns which ended up forsaking human rights and ultimately not achieving any desired objectives after rounds of failed negotiations in 2018. Denuclearization and human rights are inextricably intertwined, as contended by Victor Cha, Senior Vice President and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Victor Cha raised an important point, declaring that “true peace cannot come without improving the welfare of all Koreans on the Korean Peninsula.”  Imagining reconciliation and peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula is inadequate without considering North Korean human rights violations. It is normatively established and legally codified that sufficient transitional justice measures are essential in post-conflict deliberations. Talks of denuclearization are suggestive of renewed relations and pathways for global reintegration with North Korea respecting international institutions and laws. Accountability for human rights atrocities committed against the North Korean people has to be addressed if the North Korean regime ever wishes to engage in normalized diplomatic relations with the United States.
The Biden administration’s affirmed commitment to addressing human rights concerns has been rather reassuring. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said 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.” President Biden’s high-profile summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with Moon being the second world leader to visit the White House during Biden’s presidency, is a hopeful indication of changed priorities. Biden’s immediate appointment of Ambassador Sung Kim as the Special Envoy to North Korea has been applauded. Nonetheless, there is an urgent need for a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights. Ambassador Sung Kim may only serve in the capacity of Special Representative for the DPRK on a part-time basis since his ambassadorial posting in Indonesia is likely to keep him busy. Moreover, it would be nearly impossible to include both political security issues and human rights in his portfolio. Secretary Blinken even announced that the Biden administration would follow through with the appointment of a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights, noting that the vetting process would be time-consuming. President Moon Jae-in has been insistent on making inter-Korean détente the cornerstone of his legacy. This possibly jeopardizes any human rights efforts, given that the Moon government is reluctant to call out the Kim regime for its crimes against humanity and other egregious human rights violations. Understandably, this is a precarious time in which changes have to be incrementally and sequentially implemented. However, calibrating incremental approaches to carefully gauge the North Korean regime’s reactions does not downplay the strategic significance of the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights in building a comprehensive policy profile. With a long series of inter-Korean summits from 2018 to 2019, the next Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights will have to rebuild stagnant momentum and bring back the issue of human rights to the table while ensuring effective negotiations during precarious times.
 Robert R.King, “Congress Affirms Concern for North Korea Human Rights: Extend Human Rights Act,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 12, 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/congress-affirms-concern-north-korea-human-rights-extends-human-rights-act
 Roberta Cohen, “Why the United States needs a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights,” 38North, January 26, 2021, https://www.38north.org/2021/01/why-the-united-states-needs-a-special-envoy-for-north-korean-human-rights/
 Scott A. Snyder, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior (Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1999)
 John V. Parachini et al., “North Korean Decision Making: Economic Opening, Conventional Deterrence Breakdown, and Nuclear Use,” RAND, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RRA100/RRA165-1/RAND_RRA165-1.pdf
 H.R.757 - North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, 114th Congress, 2015-2016, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/757/text?overview=closed
 Human Rights Council, “Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” February 7, 2014, https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/a_hrc_25_crp_1.pdf
 “Six Years after the UN COI Report: A Discussion with Justice Michael Kirby,” Video Gallery, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, last modified June 17, 2020, https://www.hrnk.org/events/video-gallery-view.php?id=117
 Victor Cha, “Statement before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission: North Korea: Denuclearization Talks and Human Rights,” September 13, 2018, https://humanrightscommission.house.gov/sites/humanrightscommission.house.gov/files/documents/Victor%20Cha%20testimony-%20North%20Korea%20hearing.pdf
 Robert R. King, “The Biden-Moon Summit and North Korea Human Rights Issues,” KEI, May 6, 2021, https://keia.org/the-peninsula/the-biden-moon-summit-and-north-korea-human-rights-issues/
 Alana Wise, “Biden Appoints Career Diplomat Sung Kim To Serve As Special Envoy To North Korea,” NPR, May 21, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/05/21/999321463/biden-appoints-career-diplomat-sung-kim-to-serve-as-special-envoy-to-north-korea
 Byun Duk-kun, “Biden will appoint special envoy for N. Korean human rights as required: Blinken,” Yonhap News Agency, June 8, 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210608000300325
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.