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US Senators Introduce Bill to Extend Human Rights Work for North Koreans


File - Map of North Korea

A bipartisan duo of U.S. senators, Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Tim Kaine, a Democrat, have introduced the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2022 to the Senate to ensure the U.S. continues to promote basic freedoms of speech, press and religion in North Korea for the next five years.

Senator Rubio of Florida said "swift passage" of the bipartisan bill would allow the U.S. to continue human rights work for the people of North Korea. The passage of the bill introduced Thursday is crucial for people living under the regime of Kim Jong Un, which denies basic freedoms including a free flow of information and sufficient humanitarian aid, now a crucial concern as Pyongyang has reported COVID-19 deaths within the nation's sealed borders.

"As Pyongyang continues to disregard the dignity of its citizens and demonstrates no respect for human rights, I'm proud to introduce legislation to reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act," Rubio's office said Thursday in a statement to VOA's Korean Service.

The bill proposes the U.S. extend the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA) of 2004 for the next five years beyond its expiration in September 2022.

History of the Act

The NKHRA was first enacted by Congress and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush in 2004. The legislation was extended to 2008 and then again to 2012. In July 2018, former President Donald Trump approved the North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017.

The North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2022 would help the U.S. address "the ongoing abuses being committed by the North Korean regime," which "are a direct affront to the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," the office of Senator Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said Thursday in a statement to VOA's Korean Service.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, recognizes the fundamental rights, dignity, and freedom of all human beings as inherently global.

North Korea remains one of "the most repressive countries in the world," according to Human Rights Watch's World Report 2022.

A copy of the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2022 that VOA's Korean Service obtained on Thursday says, "the human rights and humanitarian conditions within North Korea remain deplorable and have been intentionally perpetuated against the people of North Korea through policies endorsed and implemented by Kim Jong Un and the Workers' Party of Korea," the ruling party of North Korea.

The bill calls for the appointment of a U.S. special envoy for North Korea's human rights, a position vacant since 2017, who will work at the forefront of carrying out U.S. policies that promote human rights in North Korea.

The bill also calls on U.S. and international broadcasting operations that penetrate North Korea to provide its people "a critical source of outside news and information." The U.S. has been funding VOA broadcasting into North Korea since 1942. Radio Free Asia, also funded by the U.S., was founded in 1996 and its program to North Korea began in 1997.

VOA's Korean Service, which was established at VOA's founding in 1942, is the longest running of VOA's more than 40 language services. The service began with broadcasting radio programs to North Korea, and its programs gradually increased and diversified into multiple TV programs and print reports that cover the U.S., South Korea and the world via internet and social media platforms.

A report by the Freedom House think tank, "Freedom in the World 2022," says North Korea's "one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship" heavily controls its people with state surveillance and propaganda.

Roberta Cohen, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Carter administration, said, "information, after all, is the main trigger for reform in the country."

She said that Congress should make sure the U.S. supports new technology that would increase information flow in and out of the country and invest in improving broadcasting quality and content.

Bill addresses human rights

The bill also calls attention to the many human rights issues that the Kim regime has violated and humanitarian conditions the regime failed to address, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill points out measures Pyongyang took to close the borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including shoot-to-kill orders that "resulted in the killing of North Koreans attempting to cross the border" and exacerbated humanitarian conditions such as food shortages.

The introduction of the bill comes at a time when suspected COVID-19 infections are surging in North Korea as it remains unvaccinated after rejecting multiple vaccine offers by the international community prior to openly acknowledging the cases.

North Korea confirmed an outbreak of COVID-19 for the first time Thursday. Since then, the number of confirmed infections rose to 168 as of Monday, according to state media.

VOA's Korean Service emailed the North Korean mission at the United Nations for comment on the contents of the bill and to ask if the regime was willing to receive humanitarian assistance for COVID-19 but did not receive a response.

The bill proposes the U.S. "urge North Korea to ensure that any restrictions on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic are necessary, proportionate, nondiscriminatory, time-bound, transparent, and allow international staff to operate inside North Korea."

After Pyongyang instituted pandemic border closures in January 2020, virtually all humanitarian relief organizations left the country.

The bill says the U.S. should "continue to promote the effective and transparent delivery and distribution of any humanitarian aid provided in North Korea to ensure that such aid reaches its intended recipients."

Cohen said the bill should ensure that "U.S. funded humanitarian aid" is delivered to "all vulnerable populations" including "political prisoners" suffering "the most acute cases of hunger, disease and inhumane treatments in the country."

Aid for refugees

The bill also calls for helping North Koreans trying to flee the country, often captured by China and repatriated to the regime. North Korea has been accused of torturing, imprisoning and sometimes executing those repatriated citizens.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said, it is "encouraging" that the bill requires the U.S. to "increase efforts to help settle more North Korean refugees in both the United States and (South Korea)."

He continued, "the proposed placing of a refugee coordinator in an embassy located in Asia could provide 'a control tower' to deal with the slow-motion North Korean refugee crisis."

Representative Young Kim, a California Republican, introduced the House version of the bill in March. "Rather than commit to peace, Kim Jong Un has continued his father's legacy of oppressing, starving and torturing his own people to preserve his power and build nuclear weapons," Kim's office said Thursday in a statement to VOA's Korean Service.

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