Human rights groups are calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights, a position that has been vacant since January 2017.
The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 directs the U.S. president to name a person for the role, subject to Senate confirmation. The position, however, remains unfilled, even though Biden has elevated the issue of human rights globally.
His predecessor, Donald Trump, downplayed the issue of North Korea's human rights violations after his first Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018.
VOA's Korean Service has asked the State Department about the appointment several times, including earlier this month.
"I don't have any administrative announcement or updates at this time,” a State Department spokesperson said via email. “We remain concerned about the human rights situation in the DPRK and the United States is committed to placing human rights at the center of our foreign policy." North Korea is officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said, "For an administration that claims to care greatly about promoting human rights and democracy in the world," it is critical that it "immediately act to nominate a person well versed in human rights issues in North Korea to take on this important position."
The Biden administration should also prioritize the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to South Korea, a position that also remains vacant, said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
"A strong alliance and bilateral relationship with South Korea is the prerequisite of success on all fronts, including North Korean human rights," Scarlatoiu said.
"It is past time for action from the Biden administration to match their words of wanting to support human rights," said U.S. Representative Young Kim, a California Republican. "I cannot see Kim Jong Un — as well as our allies like South Korea and Japan — taking our word seriously" when the "vital" human rights position remains unfilled.
US actions so far
On international Human Rights Day, December 10, the Biden administration placed its first sanctions designations on North Korea-related entities and individuals for rights violations.
Also this month, Biden hosted a virtual Summit for Democracy to promote the values of liberal democracy, including human rights, among allies and partners.
The Biden administration made a series of statements this year promising to fill the rights position while expressing concern about North Korea's human rights abuses.
In February, the State Department said the position would be filled as part of Biden's North Korea policy review. The administration announced that review had been completed in April, but it did not mention any nomination or appointment.
In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee he felt "strongly" about the need to appoint a rights envoy. Blinken repeated the administration's determination to fill the position to the committee in June.
Roberta Cohen, who was the deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Carter administration, said "there's no doubt" that the administration will fill the position.
"But the whole process of nominating and confirming ambassadors and envoys and officials within the government that require confirmation — this has been very slow," she said.
Cohen isn’t the only one who suspects a bureaucratic backlog.
"The real problem is the delay in the Senate in terms of reacting, responding and approving nominees that have been made by the Biden administration for a number of ambassadorial appointments," said Robert King, who served as the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues under the Obama administration.
“While simple bureaucratic neglect may play a role, there is no disguising the fact that this delay shows a lack of political priority being given to North Korean human rights issues,” added Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
At the same time, Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said, the delay is reasonable as “the Biden administration has been dealing with multiple other priorities and emergencies.”
Pressure on North Korea
Some experts think appointing a human rights envoy for North Korea will add pressure on North Korea as the Biden administration remains open to talks with the regime, which have been deadlocked since October 2019.
"Naming a human rights envoy … would signify a return to a much-needed toughening of policy from the post-Singapore summit relaxation during the Trump administration," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, said, "I do think team Biden realizes a North Korean human rights special envoy, while a good idea, could provide [North Korea] an excuse to lash out."
Sungwon Baik contributed to this report.