On May 17, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for five individuals nominated by President Joe Biden to be ambassadorial representatives of the United States. One of the nominees whose confirmation was under consideration was Julie Turner who was nominated by the President on January 23 of this year to be the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights.
The confirmation hearing was a low-key affair. Keep in mind that when nominations are being considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a low-key affair is precisely what every nominee and the leadership of the Department of State want! Presiding at the hearing was Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), who is chair of the East Asia Subcommittee. The senior Republican committee member at the hearing was Senator Pete Ricketts (R-Nebraska). One other senator, Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), joined the session and questioned a few of the nominees.
Each of the five nominees made an opening statement to the committee at the beginning of the hearing, indicating how they see their role in the particular country or on the particular set of issues they will deal with if they are confirmed.
Statement of Nominee Julie Turner
In her statement, nominee Julie Turner identified five key areas that will be her focus. First, she will seek “to reenergize international efforts to promote human rights and increase access to uncensored information” in North Korea. Giving primary focus to the lack of access to information is particularly appropriate, because control of information is one of the most powerful tools that the Kim regime uses to control its population and abuse the people’s human rights. In the World Report 2022, Human Rights Watch concluded that “The North Korean government does not respect the rights to freedom of thought, opinion, expression or information. All media is strictly controlled.” Amnesty International made a similar judgment on the lack of information in North Korea: “Restrictions on Mobile Phones and Outside Information in North Korea” allows the Kim regime to maintain “their absolute and systematic control.”
The second area of focus identified by nominee Turner in her Senate confirmation statement was her desire to “to reinvigorate accountability efforts at the UN,” including to “prioritize efforts to resume the open briefing at the UN Security Council on the human rights situation in the DPRK.” Pressing North Korea in United Nations has been an important part of the effort to pursue human rights progress in the North. The report of the UN Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council annually in March and the regular report to the General Assembly annually in October have been important elements of the effort to press Pyongyang for improvement in human rights.
Turner also called for the UN Security Council to discuss in public session North Korean human rights issues. Discussion of rights abuses in North Korea took place annually in the Security Council from 2014 to 2017, but then U.S. President Donald Trump opposed such discussions after his two highly publicized but totally unsuccessful in-person meetings with Kim Jong-un. The COVID pandemic prevented public Security Council meetings from discussing DPRK human rights, and the most recent Security Council discussion of the topic was also a closed meeting without the international media present. In March 2023, Albania and the United States cohosted a Security Council discussion of DPRK human rights, but it was an “Arria-formula” session which was not open to the media or the public. Turner’s commitment to press for “open briefing at the UN Security Council on the human rights situation in the DPRK” is an important and much-needed commitment.
The third issue which Turner raised was her intention to urge that North Korea “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and provide for the needs of its people.” Public calls for North Korea to respect human rights and urgent humanitarian needs of its people received little attention during the previous presidential administration, but it has been given greater attention under Biden. Having the Special Envoy confirmed and functioning to advocate on these issues adds an important voice. Humanitarian needs in the North are an urgent problem, but North Korea’s refusal to permit routine monitoring of the distribution of aid has made it difficult for international and United States efforts to provide help. Humanitarian needs remain urgent, and a knowledgeable and authoritative U.S. voice will be helpful.
The fourth issue was Turner’s call for protection and aid for North Korean refugees. This issue has been a matter of consistent Congressional interest and attention since before the adoption of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004. The COVID pandemic, however, has led Pyongyang and neighboring China to tighten border controls, and the number of North Korean refugees who have successfully escaped has significantly declined. Having the Special Envoy in place at the Department of State will help focus U.S. policy to aid refugees to the greatest extent possible.
The fifth and final issue, and certainly one of the most difficult, is Julie Turner’s pledge to work for Korean-Americans to have contact with relatives in North Korea. For the significant Korean-American population, arranging family reunions with family members living in North Korea has been difficult, frustrating, and emotional. Turner clearly understands the complications of the issue and the importance of working with South Korea in an effort to make progress. Past efforts have been modest, but for Korean-Americans who have been unable to have contact with their families in North Korea, this is an important issue that requires our government’s attention. Clearly the nominee for Special Envoy understands the importance and the complexity of this issue.
The Next Steps in the Confirmation Process
The public hearing at which the five ambassadorial nominees were questioned was relatively brief. The entire event took a little over an hour. All five were asked about a few particular issues, and all responded knowledgeably. No problems emerged. Senators were given 24 hours from the conclusion of the hearing to submit questions or raise issues in writing with regard to any of the five nominees. Usually, some questions are submitted in writing and require a response in writing. This is an effort to raise questions that are important for a Senator’s constituents or to put the Administration on record on a particular issue. It is not a complicated process, and the Department of State responds in writing quickly, usually within a few days, to any questions submitted.
When all of the paperwork is completed, the Foreign Relations Committee will formally approve the nominees and then arrange for the confirmation to be taken up by the Senate in plenary session. In the case of non-controversial nominations, which would include the Special Envoy for North Korean human rights, it is largely a proforma process of formally confirming the nomination. The Senate will be back in session for business on May 30. The Senate is currently on a “State Work Period,” and it will conduct no formal business from May 22-May 29. A week or two after the Senate resumes business again on May 30, the confirmation of the Special Envoy should be completed.
Pedantic About Semantics
One interesting element that I noticed during the confirmation hearing in the statement and responses of Julie Turner was the term she used to refer to North Koreans who have left their homeland and relocated in South Korea, the United States, or elsewhere. Generally, the term used in English in the United States and many other places when referring to North Koreans is been “defectors.” It is the term used by The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR), CNN, ABC, the other ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), the BBC, The Guardian, and Reuters. The list of English-language publications and broadcasters using the term “defectors” could continue on and on.
In the hearing on her ambassadorial nomination, Julie Turner carefully referred every time to North Koreans who have left their homeland as “escapees.” That term was also echoed by Senator Van Hollen. The question of “escapees” was not a major topic, but the term was used a number of times. The term “defectors” was not used at all, as I recall, during the hearing.
“Escapee” is probably a much better term for those who have chosen to leave North Korea than the term “defector.” A defector is a person who has abandoned their country or a cause in favor of an opposing one. It is an ideological term that applies in either direction. In the Cold War era Soviets defected to the West, and Americans defected to the Soviet Union, and it clearly had an ideological connotation.
“Escapee” is similar in meaning, but it has a more accurate and subtle connotation. “Escapee” implies risk and danger in fleeing, in this case from North Korea. And that certainly applies to anyone who seeks to leave North Korea. It really does not fit someone who makes a decision to leave South Korea, because there is freedom of travel and movement. You do not “escape” South Korea, you make a choice to leave. You must “escape” from North Korea because you are not able to live or leave in a free, open, transparent, and voluntary fashion.
Reauthorizing the North Korea Human Rights Act
The position of Special Envoy for North Korean human rights issues was established in the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. When the legislation was reauthorized in 2008, Congress specified that the person in that position was to have the rank of ambassador. The legislation with these provisions was reauthorized and extended in 2012 and again in 2018. Legislation was adopted by the U.S. Senate in 2022, but the House of Representatives did not adopt matching legislation, and the legislation has not been extended.
Although the legislation to reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act, has not been adopted, the President still has the inherent authority to appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights. All ambassadorial positions are not mandated by law, and the President’s power to conduct the foreign policy of the United States allows him to appoint individuals as ambassador, but advise and consent of the Senate is required for the appointment.
The failure of the Congress in 2022 to adopt the North Korean Human Rights Act is more an indictment of the dysfunction of Congress than it is a difference of opinion on the importance of the legislation and the commitment to human rights that is implicit in the bill. The North Korea Human Rights Act has been approved by voice vote or unanimous consent by both the House and the Senate almost every time it has come up for consideration. In the only recorded vote on the legislation, which was taken in the U.S. House of Representatives in September 25, 2017, the reauthorization of the North Korea Human Rights Act was approved by a recorded vote of 415-0.
Reauthorization of the North Korean human rights legislation is an important signal of the concern and interest of the American people and their government in the human rights abuse that take place in the DPRK. Failure of the Congress to reauthorize that legislation only indicates the failure of the Congress to reaffirm our commitment to these human rights principles.
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: Screenshot of Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing.