On January 23, President Joe Biden officially notified the United States Senate that he was nominating Julie Turner as “Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues with Rank of Ambassador.” Ms. Turner is currently serving as Director of the Office of East Asia and the Pacific in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL). She has had a distinguished career at the State Department and at the White House National Security Staff dealing with issues involving Asia and human rights in Asia. She was with the DRL Bureau in Washington during part of the time that I served as Special Envoy (2009-2017).
The nomination of Julie Turner was one of a group of fifteen nominations made by President Biden on January 23 and identified as “Key Nominees” who would be “key leaders in his administration.” These were among the first presidential nominations made to fill administration positions requiring Senate confirmation since the new 118th Congress convened earlier this month. (The 118th Congress began at noon on January 3, 2023 and will end at noon on January 3, 2025.)
During his first two years in office, 512 individuals nominated by Biden were confirmed by the Senate. Nominations were made for other positions, but some of these nominees were not acted upon by the Senate before the 117th Congress ended on January 3, 2023. Nominations made during one Congress do not carry over after a congressional election and the beginning of the new Congress.
Since the beginning of the new Congress on January 3, President Biden has nominated individuals for almost 90 positions, and these are currently pending before the Senate. Many of the individuals who have been re-nominated in the last few weeks were nominated in the previous Congress, but were not confirmed before the Senate concluded on January 3. The nomination of Julie Turner to serve as Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues is a new appointment, not a re-nomination
Human Rights Nomination Receives Wide Media Attention
Although some 90 nominations have been made by the President, the nomination of Julie Turner received a disproportionate share of media attention in comparison with recent Biden nominations. Principally this is because the position has not been filled for over six years, and the relationship with North Korea on human rights has been particularly troubling. The refusal of President Trump to appoint a North Korean human rights envoy during his term of office and the long delay of President Biden to make the North Korea human rights nomination have resulted in enhanced media interest now that the nomination has been made.
The North Korea human rights issue was highlighted with the appointment by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol of Dr. Lee Shin-wha as Ambassador-at-Large for North Korean Human Rights Issues in July 2022. That appointment was noteworthy because it came after a five-year period when that legally established ambassadorial position was not filled by the previous South Korean government. Ambassador Lee Shin-wha has actively engaged in highlighting North Korean human rights abuses, and her activities have served to call attention to the fact that the United States President has failed to name an ambassador with that same portfolio.
When the nomination of Julie Turner was made public on January 23, a long article appeared the very next day in The Washington Post focusing solely on the Turner nomination, with comments on the past six years without a special envoy. “Human rights advocates in the United States and South Korea have been eager for Biden – who has said that human rights are at the center of his foreign policy – to name an envoy as required by law.”
The South Korean media also gave immediate and positive attention to the nomination of Julie Turner. The JoongAng Daily (January 24) reported that the South Korean Foreign Ministry officially welcomed the nomination and “looked forward to an early start of the mission.” The story expressed criticism of the Biden administration for delay in the appointment: “While the Biden administration has insisted to place human rights and democracy back at the center of U.S. foreign policy, it has failed to fill the post halfway into Biden’s term, prompting concerns and urgent calls from human rights groups, who say North Korea has one of the most egregious human rights situations in the world.” Similar reports about the Biden nomination were published that same day by Yonhap News Agency, South Korea’s KBS Broadcasting, and the Korea Times.
The nomination also received immediate the attention of audiences well beyond the United States and South Korea. Reuters news agency reported on the story, as did the Japanese daily Mainichi, the Hindustan Times and Al Jazeera.
Failure to Reauthorize the U.S. North Korean Human Rights Act
The nomination of Julie Turner as Special Envoy also further highlights the failure of the Congress to reauthorize the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2022. Congressional procedures, to avoid a buildup of outdated legislation, require that legislation directing U.S. policy must be “reauthorized” every four or five years. The North Korea Human Rights Act was adopted by Congress in 2004, and it was subsequently reauthorized in 2008, 2012, and 2018. The provisions of the North Korea Human Rights Act expired in 2022. The Senate adopted legislation reauthorizing the Act, but the House Foreign Affairs Committee failed to consider or act upon reauthorizing legislation which had been introduced in the House during the 117th Congress.
Although the North Korea Human Rights Act has not been reauthorized, the President is within his authority to nominate a Special Envoy with rank of Ambassador. The President and the Secretary of State have authorities to designate responsibilities for U.S. government officials. If the President or Secretary of State want an official to have the rank of Ambassador, however, Senate approval is required. The failure to reauthorize the North Korea Human Rights Act should not create any problems for the confirmation of Julie Turner.
It is likely that the nomination of Julie Turner will provide impetus for the Senate and House to adopt legislation reauthorizing the North Korea Human Rights Act. When the original North Korea human rights legislation was adopted in 2004 with strong bipartisan support. It was approved by a voice vote in the House in July 2004, and it was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate in September of that year. The reauthorization of the legislation by the Senate in 2018 was approved by similar voice votes with no objections, but as noted, the House did not take up the legislation. There was no opposition to the legislation.
The recent internal difficulties in the House of Representatives suggest that the 118th Congress will be a particularly difficult one. The narrow Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the fractious ideological divide within that majority suggest that the House will have difficulty reaching agreement on many issues. We have already had a foretaste of what may be coming with the difficulties of electing the Speaker of the House earlier this month. It required fifteen recorded votes and the House was in the fifth day of meeting before the Speaker was finally elected. The last time the House was so sharply divided in selecting a Speaker was on the eve of the U.S. Civil War. The sparring has already begun in the House on the must-pass legislation to increase the budget deficit ceiling, and over the next six months that is likely to continue.
While disorder in the House of Representatives could well delay adoption of the reauthorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act, the House has no role in the confirmation of Julie Turner as Special Envoy. The Senate is likely to move forward on nominations as it has in the past. Since no House action is required, the Senate will likely want to demonstrate that it can conduct business while internal squabbling creates problems for the House.
Timeline for Confirmation of the Special Envoy
The timetable for confirmation of Julie Turner as Special Envoy should move forward at a reasonable pace. Since she has held no previous position requiring Senate confirmation, Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff will do a review of her background that will take a month or more. During that time, the nominee will be made available for meetings with individual senators, particularly members of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The committee will hold a public hearing when the preliminary investigation has been completed. In addition to the North Korea Human Rights nominee, one to three additional ambassadorial nominees could be part of that hearing. Following the formal public hearing, Senators on the Committee will be given a week or so to submit written questions for the nominee. After responses have been reviewed by staff and interested Senators, the Committee will hold a business meeting to vote on pending nominees. Non-controversial nominations will then be approved by unanimous consent or a voice vote in a Senate plenary session.
Once a nomination is announced by the White House, State Department officials responsible for congressional matters will advise the nominee to have no conversations with the media and make no statements of any kind until Senate confirmation is completed. Confirmations have been derailed when a nominee made public comments that turned out to be controversial. Before I was nominated as Special Envoy in 2009, I had spent twenty-five years working for Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. When my nomination was announced, I was specifically told by State Department officials that I should not speak to House Members or staff of the House. The House has no role in confirmation, and anything that is reported that I might say could create problems.
When I was confirmed as Special Envoy in 2009, my nomination was announced by the White House in the last week of September, my hearing took place in early November, and the Foreign Affairs Committee reported my nomination favorably. A voice vote in the Senate took place at the end of the day on November 20. I was officially sworn in as Special Envoy on November 24, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving of 2009.
We are unlikely to hear much publicly about Julie Turner until her confirmation has been completed. Her testimony at a public hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will get attention, particularly with South Korean media which has a strong interest in her nomination. She is an excellent choice for this important position. It is very encouraging that this important post is finally being filled.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished 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 Shutterstock.