U.S. President Joe Biden nominated Julie Turner as Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues, according to a statement released by the White House on Monday.
If confirmed, Turner, a career diplomat, will serve as an ambassador tackling North Korean human rights issues. The posting had been left unfilled for six years – throughout the entire Trump administration and halfway into Biden’s term.
Given the long vacancy, the nomination could provoke a backlash from Pyongyang. Whenever it is accused of harshly violating human rights – from shooting people trying to cross the borders during the pandemic to long-standing reports of torture and arbitrary detention in prison camps – North Korea denies the accusations. Instead, it blames economic sanctions imposed by the United States and United Nations for making the lives of the North Korean people harder. Considering its previous responses, Pyongyang is likely to respond angrily if Washington publicly urges it to protect human rights.
The position of Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues has remained vacant since Robert King completed his duties in January 2017. Despite U.S. legislation reauthorizing the North Korea Human Rights Act in June 2018, then-President Donald Trump never nominated a special envoy for North Korean human rights issues.
Trump may have been trying to avoid upsetting the North Korean regime during a time of diplomacy with leader Kim Jong Un. Yet even after the nuclear talks with North Korea stalled following the failed Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim in February 2019, Trump’s administration never moved to appoint a diplomat to the position.
Likewise, former South Korean President Moon Jae-in also never appointed an ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights while he was in office from 2017 to 2022. Under the South’s North Korean Human Rights Act adopted in 2016, the president can appoint an ambassador to tackle the North’s human rights issues. However, as the appointment of the position is not mandatory, Moon also kept the position vacant during his term. The first ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights was Lee Jung-hoon, who was appointed during the Park-Geun hye administration in September 2016 and served for a year.
Four months after current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took office, he appointed Lee Shin-hwa to serve as an ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights. If Turner is confirmed as a special envoy for North Korean human rights issues by the U.S. Senate, Washington and Seoul will likely coordinate their calls for Pyongyang to improve human rights.
Based on Biden and Yoon’s policy on North Korea so far, they will likely pursue a two-pronged approach to tackle both the denuclearization of North Korea and the poor human rights conditions in the state. However, as North Korea has made clear it has no intention of engaging in dialogue with South Korea and the United States, their options to tackle human rights issues in one of the world’s most isolated countries will remain extremely limited.