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Diplomat: US Must 'Engage' to Seek Change From N. Korea

FILE - The State Department building in Washington.
FILE - The State Department building in Washington.

The United States will continue to pursue diplomatic negotiations with North Korea while pressing Pyongyang to improve its human rights practice, a State Department official said this week.

Robert Destro, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor affairs, told VOA in an interview Thursday that Washington has to "engage" with "a human rights violator like North Korea" to "get them to change their behavior."

Robert Destro, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor affairs. (Courtesy U.S. State Department)
Robert Destro, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor affairs. (Courtesy U.S. State Department)

Destro's remarks came amid escalating threats from North Korea to give the U.S. an ominous "Christmas gift" and walk away from nuclear talks.

Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he was redesignating North Korea as a Country of Particular Concern for systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. The same day, President Donald Trump signed legislation tightening sanctions on Pyongyang.

Destro also commented on human rights practices in Iran, China and Venezuela. The following are excerpts from the interview.

VOA: Earlier this morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just redesignated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern. One year ago, Iran, along with others, like China and North Korea, were designated as CPC. Are those countries being redesignated again this year under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998?

DESTRO: I can't speak to the other countries, you know. I can only speak for the countries that have been through the designation process. So I'm — the secretary announced Iran, so that's all I can talk to you about today.

VOA: On North Korea: Yesterday, the United Nations General Assembly, in an annual resolution, condemned "the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights" in and by North Korea. Could you please comment?

DESTRO: Well, we remain deeply concerned about what's going on in North Korea. I think the credible evidence that's coming out of North Korea speaks for itself. I think that the U.S. has been very eloquent and I don't think we have much to add to that. It's a very good statement.

VOA: Is there any discussion in this building that putting North Korea's human rights abuses on the spot is hurting the diplomatic effort?

DESTRO: I'm not sure how to answer a question like that. I think that it's — in any case where you have a human rights violator like North Korea and you're trying to get them to change their behavior, you have to engage with them. I mean, this is just human behavior. You're either going to have a good relationship or a bad relationship or something in between. So my view is that there's nothing inconsistent with the president trying to engage with the North Koreans and to try and get them to change their behavior. That's the whole point of the negotiations.

VOA: On Tibet, a recent proposed congressional bill — the Tibetan Policy and Support Act — would impose sanctions on any Chinese official who interferes in the selection of the successor to His Holiness Dalai Lama. It would also press for a U.S. consulate in Lhasa. China has pushed back, saying the United States "blatantly interferes in China's internal affairs and sends a wrong signal to the Tibetan independent forces." What is your take on this issue? How do you respond to China's criticism?

DESTRO: As an official of the State Department, it's not my role to comment on pending congressional legislation. Congress is its own independent branch, you know. They will take whatever action they need to take, and then we will take whatever actions are appropriate once they've acted.

VOA: On Venezuela, what is the U.S. assessment of the reported harassment by the government against the National Assembly members?

DESTRO: Well, the United States is committed to democracy in Venezuela. By removing the immunity of members of Congress, you know, you don't foster democracy. And so we're very concerned about any attempts by the government to suppress its own democratically elected representatives. That's just not appropriate.

VOA: Do you have a general view on the current human rights situation in Venezuela?

DESTRO: Well, we applaud the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Madam (Michelle) Bachelet's most recent report. We think it is a good follow-up to the report that they had before. And I think we all need to study it very carefully and to take heed of the kinds of recommendations that it makes.

VOA: Thank you very much for talking to Voice of America.

DESTRO: Thank you.