Sen. Sam Brownback Puts Hold on Kathleen Stephens Nomination

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.  — The Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)

Let me be first nice Jewish boy to say it:   “G-d bless Sam Brownback.” 

One of the Senate’s oldest traditions  is the nomination  “hold.”  For judicial appointments,  holds are the exclusive prerogrative of home-state senators.  For ambassadors, senate custom allows  any senator  to place a hold on  any nomination,  which cannot  go forward until the senator  lifts it.  Holds  can be  placed and maintained in secret, although the Senate has a poor record for keeping secrets recently.   Holds need not be explained.  Some result from little more than personal vendettas.   Some are used to  extract concessions from agencies. 

Senators from both parties place holds, and there’s nothing rare or unique about them.  In the 1990’s, several Republican senators put holds on Richard Holbrooke’s nomination as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.  In 2004, John Kyl — reportedly egged on by John Bolton — put a hold on the nominee to be ambassador to the IAEA.  In 2006, Democrat Dick  Durban of Illinois put one on the President’s nominee for Ambassador to Australia.  In 2007, John Kerry put one on the nominee for Ambassador to Tanzania, who was a native of Wisconsin.  Earlier this month, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey put one on the nominee to be Ambassador to Armenia. 

You will recall that in this post, I wrote about Kathleen Stephens, the State Department’s nominee to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.  Though well qualified for the job and (so I am told) a  nice person when you meet her, Ms. Stephens is also a long-time crony of Christopher Hill, the man who would excuse North Korea from answering for its human rights atrocities, its support for terrorism, its abductions of the citizens of other nations, its counterfeiting of U.S. currency and money laundering, its nuclear  proliferation, or  its refusal to disclose   all of its nuclear weapons programs before being relieved of key  U.S. sanctions.  Hill has long been Ms. Stephens’s protege, and there is every reason to believe that her views closely match Hill’s; in fact,  Stephens’s key policy initiative in her current job was to push for a full peace treaty with North Korea.  There is less reason for confidence that Stephens’s views would align with those of a new, more conservative government in Seoul.

Provided  Ms. Stephens’s  views do not conflict with her duty to obey the law, it is  her right as a citizen to hold them, no matter how  wrong or discredited I may believe them to be.   Of course, not everyone has a right to represent the United States as an ambassador.  An  ambassador represents the interests and values of an entire nation, and that requires an extraordinary degree of trust. 

Senator  Sam Brownback has spoken with Ms. Stephens  twice to let her explain her views.  He doesn’t have that  trust, and so he’s holding the nomination.  He’s under enormous pressure from the Administration and the State Department.  In spite of that, he  went to the Senate floor yesterday to  explain his views openly:


You could read more about this here and here in the Chosun Ilbo, but the media have mostly phoned this one in and failed to explain Sen. Brownback’s thinking.  That’s why I’d like to try to explain what they haven’t.   

Back in 2003,  Sam Brownback sponsored something called the North Korean Freedom Act.  The State Department’s appeasement crowd, which was not then as dominant as it is today,  reached out to friends in  the Senate  and blocked it in the Foreign Relations Committee, back when Senator Richard Lugar was Chairman. 

The following year, a watered down version appeared as the North Korean Human Right Act.  That April, hundreds of people, most affiliated with LiNK or the North Korean Freedom Coalition, descended on Capitol Hill to lobby for the NKHRA.  We didn’t have appointments, mind you.  Hundreds of us just descended on offices in teams of a dozen each and registered our support for the Act’s passage (and often, that consisted of explaining our views to 19 year-old staffers who couldn’t find Korea on a map). 

At the time, I was fresh out of the Army, and I was summarily elected leader of an ad-hoc team that was thrown together of other teamless individuals.  Of those hundreds of amateur lobbyists, we may have been the only ones to actually meet a senator.  Out of sheer blind luck, we entered Sen. Lugar’s office just as he was walking out of  it with an Army general and an Army colonel.  Personally, Lugar was congenial and generous of his time.  I gave my very best two-minute closing argument.  Lugar feigned interest convincingly  and listened politely.  And probably for completely unrelated reasons, the North Korean Human Rights Act made it out of Lugar’s Committee that year.   In October of  2004, the the North Korean Human Rights  Act passed both houses by voice votes.  The President signed it just before Election Day 2004 in a modest ceremony.  And much like the feeling of wetting one’s self in dark suit, many of us had a warm feeling inside, but no one really noticed.  And so everyone — especially the State Department’s East Asia Bureau, of which Kathleen Stephens has been Deputy Assistant Secretary since 2005 — forgot about the North Korean Human Rights Act.

Except for Sam Brownback … and, I should note, some  principled people in the House.

You may not remember that the Act required the State Department to make human rights a “key” part of its negotiations with North Korea, or that it required expanding radio broadcasts to 12 hours a day, or that it required U.S. consular facilities overseas to “facilitate the submission of applications” by North Korean refugees for political asylum.

You can be forgiven for forgetting, because none of those things has actually happened.  I told you why back in November 2005.  My reliable source told me that  Nicholas Burns, the unofficial high priest of the appeasement wing, sabotaged the funding and implementation of  the Act.  And as a result, our consulates in China  are turning away North Korean refugees at the gates, Radio Free Asia spent much of last year in a hiring freeze, less than 50 North Korean refugees have gotten into the United States, we have a part-time Special Envoy who wears a shock collar, and human rights are a functional non-issue in our talks with the North Koreans.

As a matter of policy, you may well disagree with all of my views on those things, and if so, I encourage you to express that view to your member of Congress, as I  have done  to mine and yours.  If you don’t like the law, there are ways of changing it, but  the list  of acceptable methods  does not  include allowing members of the Executive Branch to defy it.

I  understand that the issuance of regulations, the formulation of policies, and the creation of budgets takes time, but it doesn’t take nearly four years.  There is no rational explanation for State’s behavior except that it considers itself self-governing and above the law.  That attitude  has made State some enemies in Congress this week over the much-delayed Syria revelations, but this deserves to be just as big a scandal. 

You will see, incidentally, some Google Earth images of Camp 22 in that speech, and if you think those photographs look familiar, you’re right.  At the very least, full disclosure requires me  to mention at least that much and let you infer the rest on your own.  Not that anyone who got this far confused me with a disinterested or unbiased observer.  If you’re disinterested,  then you did not  click that last link.

Kathleen Stephens may be perfectly qualified technically and linguistically, but an absence of respect for the law is a disqualification for any public servant in a democracy.  And as with every single politician human being alive, there are issues on which Senator Brownback and I would probably disagree, but on this issue, he deserves more than the commendation of the few people who will read this — he deserves to be remembered by history.  Here is a man who made a difference, and here, by itself, is a reason to remember that one man, driven by conscience alone,  defied his President and his friend  to save the lives of people who will never see, know, or vote for him.


  1. Joshua’s touching last words will long resonate:

    “Here is a man who made a difference, and here, by itself, is a reason to remember that one man, driven by conscience alone, defied his President and his friend to save the lives of people who will never see, know, or vote for him.”

    And to those who say that Senator Brownback merely represents the “right wing Christian” types, may I ask you: What have you or your own type done to speak out against crimes against humanity lately?

    I wonder who among South Korea’s some 300 assemblymen will have the courage and integrity to speak up consistently as Brownback does against North Korea’s multi-faceted crimes against humanity.


  2. I am pleased that my representative, Frank Wolf, is also a vocal advocate on behalf of North Korean refugees.


  3. Wolf is a stalwart. The North Korean people have a few Charlie Wilsons on their side: Wolf, Ros-Lehtinen, Ed Royce, and Chris Smith; and in the Senate, of course, Brownback. To the extent McCain has spoken about the issue, he’s also said the right things. I’m pleased that he always raises human rights without being prompted. Obama will say favorable things when prompted, but I’m not sure he has a well articulated 360-degree view of the subject, and I don’t really see how sitting down with Kim Jong Il one-on-one is likely to advance human rights. I know we have some Obama supporters who regularly visit; maybe one of them can explain.


  4. God Bless Sam Brownback. He has consistently spoken up and acted for those around the world who are oppressed, abused, unlawfully imprisoned, etc. That he has worked on behalf of North Korean refugees, acted to move government to help those in Sudan and other African nations that have experienced genocide or mass refugee movements due to political, reliogious and ethnic cleansing, consistently voted against support for communist, totalitarian, oppressive regimes, and has sought to extend an American hand of help and strength to those in need will never be forgotten by me, and hopefully, by informed citizens of this nation and those in the countries whom he has helped.

    Men of conviction are a dying breed in U.S. politics, literally. (Henry Hyde, etc.) I can only hope and pray that more men like Sen. Brownback become involved in politics, and those that are there remain committed and retain their integrity.