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The Peninsula

Reauthorization of the North Korea Human Rights Act Will Reaffirm U.S. Policy Toward North

Published January 11, 2018
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

By Robert King

The adoption of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 was a milestone that reflected United States interest and concern for the human rights situation in North Korea. The legislation authorized funds for increasing radio broadcasts and promoting freedom of information in the North, called for active American efforts in the United Nations Human Rights Council and other UN agencies to promote information and action on human rights violations in the North, established the position of Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights at the Department of State, specified conditions for providing humanitarian assistance to North Koreans inside the country and to those outside North Korea trying to flee to South Korea or elsewhere, and supported North Korean refugee admission to the United States.  The legislation required reports to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to insure implementation.

This U.S. legislation in 2004 was important in encouraging similar actions by Japan and South Korea.  The Japanese law on North Korean human rights of 2006 called for efforts to promote public awareness of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens and urged cooperative international efforts—particularly involving the United Nations, the United States, and South Korea—in seeking respect for human rights and winning the release of abducted Japanese citizens.

South Korean legislation, the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016, required several years to enact because of political differences on North-South relations within the National Assembly.  The law provides for an Advisory Committee within the Ministry of Unification to develop a recommended plan of action to promote human rights, the establishment of a North Korea human rights foundation to fund human rights activities, and the creation of an archive of data from North Korean “defectors” (refugees) on human rights conditions in the North, which is maintained by to the Ministry of Justice for future accountability.

The original United States North Korea Human Rights Act was valid for four years.  In Congressional practice, legislation must be adopted for a specific period to prevent outdated legislative provisions from continuing in force beyond the identified need which led to the law.  If the need continues, legislation is “reauthorized”—the provisions of the law are updated and the period of effectiveness is extended.  The North Korea Human Rights Act was reauthorized in 2008 and again in 2012.  The 2008 reauthorization was for four years, and the 2012 reauthorization for five years to 2017.

Although the North Korea Human Rights Act provisions expired in 2017, Congressional interest has continued and legislation to extend the law was approved by the House of Representatives in September 2017.  The House vote indicates the broad support for North Korea human rights issues.  It was adopted by a unanimous vote of 415-0.  The bill adopted by the House was introduced by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), who was also author of the bills to extend the North Korea human rights legislation in 2008 and 2012.  She has a strong commitment to human rights.

The Senate extension was approved by the Foreign Relations Committee in December 2017 without a dissenting vote, though final action by the full Senate has not yet been taken.  The adoption of the reauthorization of the legislation is expected early this year.  The Senate version of the bill was introduced by Congressman Marco Rubio (R-Florida).  He, like Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, is Cuban-American and a strong advocate for human rights.  Both House and Senate versions were cosponsored by senior committee members of both parties.

House and Senate versions of the reauthorization are similar in extending the law’s provisions to 2022, but they are not identical.  They reaffirm the American commitment to human rights in North Korea and reflect the concern for North Korean refugees.  Both are critical of China’s forcible repatriation of would-be North Korea refugees back to North Korea, both call on China to permit refugees to go to any country of their choice, and both urge China to permit the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit China and cooperate in finding a humane solution to the refugee population.

Both House and Senate legislative drafts note that only 212 North Korean refugees have come to the United States since 2004, and both versions clearly welcome North Koreans to the United States if they wish to resettle here.  This is a significant difference in attitude than that shown toward refugees from most other places over the last year.  [The number of North Korean defectors admitted to the United States in Fiscal Year 2017 (October 1, 2016-September 30, 2017), which included the first nine months of the Trump presidency, was only 12 individuals.  This was one of the lower numbers in the past decade; however, this is more likely the result of an overall decline in the number of defectors getting out of North Korea than a change in U.S. policy on refugees.]

Both versions of the North Korea Human Rights extension give considerable attention to efforts to promote freedom of information through broadcasting sponsored by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and other programs to improve the free flow of information involving USB drives, digital media, and other information technology programs.  Such programs were an important element of the initial North Korea Human Rights Act, and broadcasting to North Korea has increased and newer means of delivering information to the North have expanded over the last decade and a half with the strong support of the foreign affairs committees and the appropriations committees of the House and Senate.

There are a couple of differences between House and Senate bills that are worth noting.  In the section on Congressional findings, the Senate gives considerable attention to the 2014 UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry report which catalogued and discussed at some length the serious human rights violations by the North Korean government.

The House and Senate bills both extend the position of the Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights to 2022.  The House version, however, is much more explicit in disagreeing with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s proposal to downgrade or eliminate the position of Special Envoy.  The House-passed version states:

It remains the sense of Congress, as specified in section 3(3) of the North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2008 that ‘the Special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues should be a full-time position within the Department of State in order to properly promote and coordinate North Korean human rights and humanitarian issues, and to participate in policy planning and implementation with respect to refugee issues, as intended by the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004.

With the limited differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, there should be little problem coming up with an acceptable text.  The usual procedure would be to have staff work out the differences and come up with a common acceptable text before the Senate takes up the bill for a vote.

This legislation obviously has broad bi-partisan and bi-cameral support, as it has had over the last decade and a half.  Passage of this legislation will emphasize to Pyongyang that human rights are an important issue to the American people and their government.


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

Photo from the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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