For months, I’ve heard rumors that the Trump administration isn’t fond of special envoys, and quietly, some of us fretted that the administration was planning to eliminate the job of Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea. As it turns out, Tillerson isn’t doing exactly that:
The functions and staff of the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues would now fall under the office of the under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, who will now also assume that title. The position of special envoy for the six-party talks dealing with North Korea will be removed, as the talks ended in 2008. [CNN]
Why stop there? Why doesn’t Tillerson just eliminate both posts? Because he can’t. The human rights envoy’s position is a creation of statute — specifically, of section 107 of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, now codified at 22 U.S.C. 7817. A cabinet secretary can’t unilaterally eliminate a position that Congress has created.
The good news is that the job would move out of the East Asia Bureau, where the Special Envoy’s mission was more easily subordinated to each Assistant Secretary’s pursuit of a Nobel Peace Prize. But the proposal to merge the Special Envoy’s job into another position is problematic. Until recently, Congress cared deeply about the issues within the Special Envoy’s mandate. We’re about to find out if it still does. It was never pleased that former Special Envoy Jay Lefkowitz was a part-time Special Envoy. In the notes below section 7801, in fact, there is sense-of-Congress language expressing the sentiment that “the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues should be a full-time position.”
The State Department will say that merging a position doesn’t mean it isn’t full time. Congress will answer that if you’re doing more than one job full-time you aren’t doing either job full-time, and the notion of a full-time part-time job is absurd. Anyone who can’t think of why this should be a full-time job doesn’t understand what the job should be. The Special Envoy should be the administration’s principal public voice who speaks to the world, and to the people of North Korea, in explaining, defending, and encouraging the implementation of policies that force Pyongyang to accept transparency, and to respect human life and dignity, or perish.
Congress and the world will not unite around a policy that diminishes or sidelines human rights. Transparency and respect for human life are logically inextricable from issues of war, peace, and proliferation. Those issues are also linked geographically, and perhaps operationally. To sideline human rights would throw away an important source of leverage over North Korea, China, South Korea, and Japan, which sees getting its abducted citizens back as a part of the Special Envoy’s job.
Human rights is also a test of whether diplomacy can work at all. If Pyongyang can’t accept transparency in its acceptance of aid or the amelioration of conditions in its gulags, why should anyone believe that we can have credible nuclear diplomacy? Human rights can be an important force multiplier in sanctions enforcement. If you’re a North Korean diplomat in Vientiane or Asmara who’s thinking about jumping the fence and taking your laptop and the passwords to your bank accounts with you, does this make it more or less likely that you’ll go through with that?
This proposal sends a message that America is abandoning the people of North Korea just when we need each other most. It will cost us the support of a global liberal coalition that is tempted to view sanctions-busting engagement or squandering unmonitorable aid as strategies for advancing humanitarian conditions in the North. It will undoubtedly please accountants in OMB and career diplomats in some quarters of the State Department, but it’s short-sighted and wrong. Congress should protest.