Speaking out for the North Korean people is more than a full-time part-time job

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.


  1. This is a pretty messed up signal that we are sending.. I, of course, blame this on Donald Trump who is in charge of everything in Washington and Tillerson who lacks the backbone to tell his boss to be more sensible here.

    While quick to respond to Kim Jong Un’s daily bluff with inconsistent tweets, Trump has yet to communicate one fucking tweet about how he cares for the innocent North Koreans who must suffer because they were guilty of being born in this hell hole. A couple tweets that illustrate Trump’s sincere sympathy, concerns and his commitment to freeing the victims in North Korea could really make a difference right now.

    It’s time for people like Stanton, Chang and others qualified to have a wake up meeting with the “powers to be” in Washington.



  2. I disagree; I think “There’s nothing to talk about” is the perfect signal to send to North Korea.

    Because there isn’t. They have said they won’t negotiate away their nukes; they have nothing else we want; and they have a long history of not honoring agreements. (Donald Trump didn’t get where he is by not knowing when someone is out to screw him over.)

    NK wants the USA back at the negotiating table, so we can have another Agreed Framework in exchange for the lessening of sanctions. In fact, I submit that the new sanctions are what’s driving this behavior.

    The worst thing we could do is sit down to a negotiation that doesn’t address nukes, chemical weapons to Syria, VX in a public airport, human rights, or any of the other countless atrocities this regime has committed. We must not again fall into the trap of trading North Korea things of value for promises to meet the most minimal behavior standards – which they won’t keep anyway.

    The best thing Donald Trump can do about North Korea is nothing. Make it clear that missile launches through our allies’ airspace will not bring us to the negotiating table.

    Kim Jong-un will have two choices: ramp up the tantrums, to further indifference; or, back down, and appear weak. Either way, it punctures the regime’s image in a way they can’t have. They can’t have the US ignoring their demands, and they certainly can’t capitulate.

    Of course, the former outcome is risky – I think it’s only a matter of time before one of these missiles lands somewhere it shouldn’t. But i feel that negotiating away our leverage, and letting this regime persist, would be worse in the long term. (Though it’s easy for me to say when the missiles can’t reach my house. 🙂 )


  3. Gary, I think your proposition is absolutely unacceptable.

    The costs of inaction, or as we called it in the past, “strategic patience”, is one of folly. History has shown its effectiveness and among North Korean watchers, we have known it to be futile well before it became a popular political choice for Presidents.

    What are the potential outcomes of simply sitting idle and letting North Korea do as it pleases? For one, they will NOT collapse on its own. Economically, they are in a better situation relatively speaking than they’ve been in the past.

    North Korea and its people have suffered extreme hardship in the past and have persevered. There have been no significant changes that indicate that the general populace, or even the political or military elites have any inclination or capacity to dissent.

    By leaving them to their devices, North Korea will close the negotiating gap by increasingly advancing their nuclear capability. Your characterization of North Korea is borne of ignorance, thinking that the North Korean leadership is crazy, irrational, and childlike in behavior, lashing out in response to sanctions.

    This cannot be further from the truth. They are not shooting missiles as temper tantrum. They are shooting missiles to become more proficient in their missile capability in order to have a negotiating advantage.


  4. Isn’t the big question: “Who will be chosen as the next Special Envoy?” I hope that the new Special Envoy’s last name starts with
    the letter “S”. And just for the record, I mean Scarlatoiu, Scholte,
    or Stanton, but obviously NOT Shorrock, Sigal, or Shin (Eun-mi).


  5. If pre-emptive military options are off the table for obvious reasons and Kim Jong Un never gives up his nuclear program, the only way there can be a regime change in North Korea is by the people of North Korea.

    Contrary to popular belief, the ordinary citizens in NK are starting to form their opinions as to what is right (not much) and what is wrong with their country. According to recent defectors from NK, more and more of its citizens are watching smuggled videos from South Korea and China and have access to mobile phones. There is no doubt the world is becoming smaller in Pyongyang and beyond in NK.

    We need to send a clear signal to those in NK who will one day rise up and fight for their rights. They need to know today that US was and always will be on the right side of the history.


  6. Well, Justin, the first thing I notice in your comment is the lack of helpful alternatives. How exactly do you propose we not “let North Korea do what it pleases?” No one’s succeeded at that since 1953. Please enlighten us.

    As for the rest of it, I subscribe to this theory:

    “(North Korea) thinks that by exhibiting their capability, the path to dialogue will open,” said Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Japan’s Keio University. (Reuters)

    And I’ll stick by the word “tantrum” to describe it.

    What I suggest is not “strategic patience.” It is refusing to reward bullying behavior with negotiations, which I believe the regime desperately wants. The last KCNA piece about the launch accused the US of the “imprudently denying the DPRK’s initiative measure for easing the extreme tension.” The DPRK’s initiative for easing tension, huh? I can guess what that entails.

    I agree with you that this launch was done to become more proficient at missile capability, because missile launches can be done for more than one reason. But the choice of trajectory over Japan seems rife with meaning. It’s adequately defiant, but a step back from recent threats to lob missiles at Guam. It reeks of weakness. They don’t want to provoke us too much.

    You don’t want North Korea to gain a negotiating advantage? Then don’t give them time to develop their missile program, by giving away our current leverage for some agreement they won’t honor. We must not repeat the mistake of Banco Delta Asia, by forfeiting the leverage we have now, via sanctions, for empty promises.

    But if you’ve got a better idea, I’m willing to listen.


  7. “There’s nothing to talk about” is NK’s position. Our position now (which shall NOT be strategic patience) must be “we want to talk” but respond appropriately to NK’s provocations.

    Firing missiles over Japan sends clear signals to U.S., China and South Korea. KJU wants to prove that he is in charge of a sovereign state that has the military might to do harm whenever he singly wishes to do so. He is also aware that as long as military conflict remains as the dominant issue in the international arena, no attention can be given to his biggest weaknesses.

    We must never forget his on-going violations against humanity. We need to start humanizing and personalizing the pain and suffering of the NK people. Building gaudy structures and providing “luxurious” goods synonymous with the West is designed to mask his biggest weakness.

    Let’s attack Kim Jong Un – where it will hurt him the most…