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The Peninsula

Congressional Disfunction and the Prospect for Legislation on North Korean Human Rights

Published January 12, 2023
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

Political Junkies and anxious U.S. citizens watched in awe last week as the United States House of Representatives put on a five-day spectacle of electing the new Speaker of the House.  This surrealistic extravaganza finally concluded with the 15th vote which took place after midnight on January 7th.

The election of the Speaker is usually a pro forma exercise that requires a couple of hours while representatives cordially meet newly-elected House members and greet returning colleagues.  That is followed by all House members being sworn-in to officially begin their legislative service.  With those two steps, the House of Representatives is officially in session and prepared to conduct business.

In January of this year, however, it required 15 lengthy roll-call votes before the Speaker of the House was finally elected, and each roll-call vote required up to three hours to complete.  During the voting, tempers flared among some Republican Members of Congress, and television cameras showed at least one Member physically restraining another.  Congressmen nearly came to blows in the House chamber, but the Republican majority was finally able to elect the Speaker.

It takes 218 of the 435 members of the U.S. House to achieve majority control of the legislative body.  Republicans hold 222 seats with only 4 members over the majority of 218.  This is one of the narrowest margins ever in U.S. history.  The last time the House of Representatives required 15 or more roll-call votes to elect a Speaker was in 1859, when the United States was teetering on the brink of the U.S. Civil War.

As entertaining as it was to observe the chaos accompanying the election of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the disfunction evident in the election raises serious questions about future Congressional action over the next two years of this current Congress.  It also raises questions about action on specific political issues on the Congressional agenda in light of this evident legislative disarray.  In particular, what does this spectacle of electing the Speaker of the House suggest with regard to the important legislation on North Korean human rights issues in the coming two years?

Congressional Inaction on the Extension of the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2021-2022

Several legislative bills related to North Korean human rights were introduced in the previous 117th Congress (January 2021-December 2022), but the fate of these various proposed legislative actions was not encouraging.  The most significant legislation on human rights in North Korea in the last Congress was proposed legislation to extend the North Korea Human Rights Act.  This legislation authorizes specific programs to aid North Korea refugees, and extends the position of Special Envoy for North Korean human rights issues.

Legislation to extend the authority for programs under the North Korea Human Rights Act was introduced in both the House and the Senate in 2021.  Congress requires that virtually all programs must be reauthorized every four or five years in order to review the impact of previous legislation and make changes as appropriate in legislatively-authorized programs.  In the first reauthorization of the original North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 four years later, programs were extended for an additional four years, and some provisions were strengthened.  For example, the position of Special Envoy for North Korean human rights issues was made an ambassadorial-level appointment requiring confirmation by the U.S. Senate in 2008.

The North Korean Human Rights Act was again extended in 2012.  The legislation was extended some five years later in 2018 with adoption of the “North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017.”  (The reauthorization act of 2017 took until 2018 to win approval.)  This most recent reauthorization was accomplished during the presidency of Donald Trump, who did not appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights as called for in the law and who did little to press Pyongyang on human rights issues.  Nevertheless, Trump signed the reauthorization legislation which was approved overwhelmingly by the Congress, but he failed to abide by its provisions.  During his four year in office, no Special Envoy was appointed.

In 2021 reauthorizing legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate extending the North Korea Human Rights Act for another four-year period.  The House version of the extension legislation, H.R. 7332, was introduced by Congresswoman Young Kim (R-California), who is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Joining her as a cosponsor was Congressman Ami Beri (D-California), who is a prominent majority member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.  Despite bipartisan support for the legislation and no opposition whatever to the bill, it was never acted upon by the Foreign Affairs Committee, and it was not brought up for a vote in the House of Representatives.

Senate legislation to extend the North Korea Human Rights Act, S. 4216, was introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), on May 12, 2022.  Rubio’s legislation was cosponsored by two prominent Senate Democrats, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Chris Coons of Delaware.  The legislation was considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and approved on July 19, 2022.  The text was amended when it was considered by the full Senate, and the legislation was approved by the Senate on December 8, 2022.

Differences between the legislation as originally introduced in May 2022 and the final version approved by the Senate in December 2022 were relatively minor.  A provision requiring the Secretary of State to have a State Department official in Asia to focus primarily on aiding North Korean refugees was dropped.  The significant decline in the number of North Korean refugees able to leave North Korea has dropped drastically since the beginning of the COVID outbreak in 2019, and the number of individuals able to migrate to the United States and to South Korea no longer justify this action.

The legislation adopted by the Senate also included provisions (Section 9 of the final version) expressing congressional concern that sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs might limit humanitarian assistance for the North Korean people.  The new text provided that humanitarian relief items to the North would be exempt from sanctions.  Reports to the Congress from the Department of State were required to include a discussion of North Korean patterns of abuse involving humanitarian aid and proposed steps to assure that any assistance provided would reach those most in need.

Senate action on the reauthorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act came on December 8, 2022—after the general election and just before Congress adjourned.  All legislation not acted upon will need to be reintroduced in the new Congress if the Members wish to take up these issues in the 118th congress (2023-2024).

Legislation Urging Help for Divided Korean-American Families to Meet with North Korean Relatives

In addition to the reauthorization of the North Korea Human Rights Act, several bills were introduced in both the House and Senate in the last Congress reflecting concerns of Korean-Americans about having contact with relatives in North Korea.  Tens of thousands of Korean-Americans have family members in North Korea.  The individuals involved were separated during the Korean War (1950-1953).  Because of strict policies denying North Koreans an opportunity to travel or to meet with family members who are now living outside of North Korea, family members have not been able to see each other for the last seventy years.

On a few occasions North Korea has permitted small numbers of Korean family members to meet briefly with relatives from South Korea, but such meetings have only taken place on North Korean territory.  The numbers who have been able to meet with family members are very small, and U.S. citizens have been excluded.  When I served as Special Envoy, I sought permission for Korean-Americans to participate with South Korean families in these family reunions, but such family meetings have not been permitted.

A number of bills have been introduced in both House and Senate urging the State Department to advocate for and seek opportunities for family reunions.  In April 2021, Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-New York) introduced legislation (H.R. 826 “Divided Families Reunification Act”) directing the State Department to report to Congress periodically on consultations with South Korea on opportunities for Korean-Americans to meet with family in North Korea, and the Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues would be required to report to Congress on consultations with Korean Americans on efforts at arranging reunion meetings.  The legislation was passed by the House of Representatives on July 19, 2021, with a vote of 415 to 0.  Like most human rights issues, there is seldom if ever a negative vote in House or Senate against bills and resolutions dealing with North Korea human rights.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not take up this legislation, and passage by the House was as far as the bill progressed.

A House Resolution introduced by Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-California) called upon the United States and North Korea to begin a process to reunite Korean Americans with their immediate relatives in North Korea (H. Res. 294 – “Encouraging Reunions of Divided Korean-American Families”).  The resolution was adopted by voice vote in the House.  Since this was a resolution expressing the view of the House of Representatives, no Senate action was required.

On this same issue, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) with three other senators introduced legislation in August 2021 directing the Department of State to report to Congress on diplomatic efforts to provide opportunities for Korean Americans from divided families to meet with relatives in North Korea.  (S. 2688 – “Korean War Divided Families Reunification Act”).  That legislation was not considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the full Senate.

The Fate of Other Congressional Legislation on North Korean Human Rights

Other legislation relating to human rights in North Korea was introduced in the 117th Congress , but most of these bills received less attention than the reauthorization of the North Korea Human Rights Act.  A number of bills were introduced to allow a particular Senator or Congressman to call attention to a particular issue by authoring legislation on the topic.

For example, Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who was Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the 117th Congress introduced legislation (S. 4824 – North Korea Policy Oversight Act of 2022) which laid out specific actions Chairman Menendez would like to see the U.S. government take to monitor and deal with North Korea, including sanctions for nuclear and missile programs, as well as monitoring and actions on human rights issues.  This extensive draft law may have been a vehicle for the Foreign Relations Committee Chairman to demonstrate to the State Department his expectations for monitoring of events in North Korea.  The legislation was introduced but no hearings were held, and no other congressional action was taken on the legislation.

Other legislation was introduced reflecting the personal concerns of Members of Congress or their constituents.  For example, Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced legislation focusing on humanitarian assistance for the North Korean people (S. 690 – Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act).  Humanitarian concerns have been important for the Senator, and including humanitarian provisions in the Senate version of the reauthorization bill reflected Senator Markey’s interests.

Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced legislation to improve access to information and North Korean censorship, one of the important tools that the regime in Pyongyang uses to maintain its authority.  This legislation was named to recognize U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, an Ohio college student who was fatally injured while in North Korean custody after being arrested on a minor infraction of a North Korean law when he was on a tourist visit to the country.  (S. 2129 – Otto Warmbier Countering North Korean Censorship and Surveillance Act).  The same legislation was also introduced in the House of Representatives several months later by Congressman Brad R. Wenstrup (R-Ohio).  Wenstrup’s Ohio congressional district includes the town where Otto Warmbier lived and where his parents and siblings still live.  The Portman legislation was introduced by Wenstrup in 2022 (H.R. 8799 – Otto Warmbier Countering North Korean Censorship and Surveillance Act of 2021).

What Can We Expect in the 118th Congress on North Korea Human Rights

The five-day spectacle of disarray that marked the election of the Speaker at the opening of the House of Representatives earlier this month does not suggest that a unified House will move forward on a clear agenda.  Further complicating the Congressional picture is the fact that Democrats hold a similar very narrow margin in controlling the Senate.  Unfortunately, the probable scenario in Congress is likely to be disarray.  Over the next two years, the two political parties will increasingly focus on the up-coming 2024 presidential election.  The divisions within the Republican ranks will make it even more complicated to raise the Federal Government debt limit and work out a budget compromise that is acceptable to a majority in the House and Senate as well as winning the approval of President Biden.

In this hyper-partisan atmosphere, human rights in North Korea are not a partisan issue.  All Members of Congress seem to be be in the same place regardless of their politics.  In the past contentious two years during the 117th Congress, the only recorded vote on a North Korea human rights issue—the “Divided Families Reunification Act” sponsored by Grace Meng—was approved in the House of Representatives by a vote of 415 to 0.  The problem for North Korean human rights issues is not partisan differences, but finding the time and the will to move human rights issues forward when the atmosphere is fouled with political controversy.

The Biden Administration’s dawdling in appointing a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights, despite assurances of support for human rights in North Korea from State Department and the White House, suggests that this will be a difficult issue to win attention.  There is no question that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine remains the most serious foreign policy issue, and growing Chinese assertiveness internationally will require concentrated attention.  At the same time, North Korean human rights issues are important and they deserve our best efforts, even if the issue cannot command the attention and focus needed to deal with Ukraine and China.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Amanda Walker’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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