Most of the people reading this blog probably have no idea who Robert King is, and that is a sad comment in itself. King’s title is Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, a position that was created back in 2004, under a mostly forgotten and disregarded law called the North Korean Human Rights Act. In the Bush Administration, the office was initially filled by Jay Lefkowitz, a well-meaning man who initially came to Bush’s attention for his opposition to stem cell research. Lefkowitz came to the job with little subject matter expertise, no political juice, and a part-time portfolio. Yet Lefkowitz was a quicker study and more perceptive of North Korea’s pathology than the State Department had expected. When he spoke cogently about that pathology, including its effect on the diplomacy to which human rights was made a subordinate priority, Lefkowitz was publicly humiliated by Condi Rice and rolled by Christopher Hill. Lefkowitz nearly resigned, and should have. He might have made a real impact with a very public resignation, but instead, he served out his term in obscurity as Rice’s (and Bush’s) diplomatic initiative to North Korea ended, predictably, in a fiasco.
Here are King’s bio and the web page the State Department set up for him. But what you really want to read about is how King is carrying out the mandate Congress has given him — his policy initiatives and plans to mobilize the consciousness of the world to ease the suffering of the North Korean people. I suppose that would be at the link called “releases,” where we find the evidence of all that Ambassador King has accomplished in his three years in office:
Jesus wept. Where are the plans to mobilize global opinion, bring Twitter to North Korea, sanction the leaders of North Korea’s internal security forces, or bring Chapter VII sanctions at the Security Council over the matter of North Korea’s concentration camps? There isn’t even a schedule of the conferences King attends to strike a sagacious pose and avoid saying anything controversial or newsworthy. At one of these recently, I asked King to demonstrate or defend the effectiveness of his tenure. What accomplishments, or alternatively, what specific initiatives, can King point to? He couldn’t.
I suppose it’s unfair to lay all of this at King’s feet. Back when he was a diplomat working European issues, King had a solid reputation as an advocate for human rights in diplomacy. Like all diplomats, King is a civil servant who answers to a bureaucracy, which answers to the President. Clearly, this president has made a strategic decision to downplay human rights as an issue with North Korea. His State Department believes that to raise human rights would hinder nuclear negotiations with North Korea, but that wasn’t true in the case of the U.S.S.R., China, or Burma, because negotiations work best when the people negotiating with us feel pressure to change, and believe that we mean what we say.
Instead, what we’re left with is a policy that is functionally indistinguishable from — and almost as unsuccessful as — the North Korea policy of our last president. In fact, the only difference I see between Bush and Obama on their approach to the world’s worst human rights violations is that when one of them was inaugurated, he was awarded a preemptive Nobel Peace Prize and a preemptive pardon by the Human Rights Industry.