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New US Envoy for North Korea Rights an 'Ideal' Fit, Activists Say

North Koreans visit and pay respect to the statues of late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 22, 2023 on the occasion of the Lunar New Year.
North Koreans visit and pay respect to the statues of late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 22, 2023 on the occasion of the Lunar New Year.

Human rights activists are welcoming the United States' appointment of an envoy for North Korean human rights, a position that had been vacant for six years.

The White House late Monday announced it would appoint Julie Turner, a veteran State Department foreign affairs officer, who has long focused on North Korea human rights issues.

Turner, who must be confirmed by the Senate, is currently the director of the East Asia and Pacific office of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

She has worked in the office for 16 years, during which she has "primarily focused on initiatives related to promoting human rights in North Korea," according to a White House press release.

Under a law initially passed by Congress in 2004, the U.S. president must appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights. However, no one has served in the position since 2017, when U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy stepped down.

Former President Donald Trump, who prioritized his personal relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, never appointed a North Korean human rights envoy. Trump's first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, at one point proposed eliminating the position.

It's unclear why it took President Joe Biden two years to name an appointee, especially since Biden has said he will prioritize human rights issues. Nonetheless, activists praised the move, calling Turner an ideal fit.

Turner is "terrific, with full awareness and understanding about the North Korean human rights situation," according to Lee Shin-wha, South Korea's human rights envoy for North Korea.

"I am so pleased to get the news and look forward to closely cooperating with this highly capable lady," Lee told VOA.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director for the Washington D.C.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said Turner is "a truly great scholar and champion of North Korean human rights."

Once confirmed, Scarlatoiu said he hopes the new envoy will adopt a "human rights up front approach" to North Korea.

North Korea is a totalitarian state that tightly restricts nearly every aspect of its citizens' civil and political liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion and movement. It consistently ranks at or near the bottom of global human rights rankings.

Activists say the situation has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been used as a pretext to sever the country's already fragile links to the outside world.

"It's the darkest period in the history of human rights in North Korea, believe it or not," Scarlatoiu said.

During Turner's time at the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the office has been involved with several projects that aim to promote the free flow of information into and out of North Korea and raise awareness of North Korea's rights violations.

North Korea has not reacted to Turner's nomination. It often becomes enraged when other countries or international bodies mention its rights violations.

However, at various points, North Korea has interacted with the U.S. human rights envoy — including in 2011, when Ambassador Robert King led a mission to assess North Korea's food situation.

It's unclear whether any similar humanitarian initiatives can succeed now. In recent years, North Korea has ignored U.S. offers of pandemic assistance, shunning virtually all contact with U.S. officials.

While placing human rights at the forefront of engagement with North Korea is not easy, Turner is "precisely the sort of savvy and strategic representative to get difficult things like this done," said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

"Turner has excelled on promoting and protecting human rights across her portfolio," Robertson said, "And she is precisely the kind of dogged advocate that rights issues in the DPRK require for any sort of change to occur."

Activist groups have long complained that human rights were not discussed during the Trump-Kim talks, which instead focused on eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons and improving Pyongyang's relations with Washington and Seoul.

The talks broke down in 2019. North Korea has since resumed major weapons tests and says it will not resume talks until the United States drops what it calls its "hostile policy." Specifically, North Korea objects to U.S.-led sanctions that have battered its economy and the heavy U.S. military presence in the region.