Robert King and Human Rights in the DPRK

It’s an understatement to suggest that North Korea has moved to the fore of public consciousness lately, if not necessarily in public conscience. The “useful clown” Dennis Rodman did much to assist this, causing people to break away, momentarily, from Project Runway and The Bachelor to wonder what exactly was so bad about Kim Jong Un, really. In this respect, he was exponentially more effective than Ambassador Robert R. King.

If you’re like me, you just thought, “Who?” In a minute, you will understand how perverse it is that we all know Dennis Rodman and no one knows Robert King.

For the past four years, Robert R. King has been the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues. You’d think his name would come up once or twice in the course of western journalism, right? After all, the DPRK’s reeducation and death camps have been existing operating 12 times longer than any Nazi concentration camp had (they were running one year before the nation was founded, in fact). After our global vow of “never again” to the conditions of the Holocaust, we’ve sat on our thumbs through the Khmer Rouge’s ideological massacre, the Bosnian genocide, Rwanda’s ethnic cleansing, the Balkans, Syria, and so many other massive slaughters of innocent populations. And now we find ourselves passively observing the whole thing again in North Korea, and we have the chance to step up and take action like we never have before, rather than saying what we would have done in hindsight.

And we will, right after The Mindy Project.

Last year, Ambassador King expressed frustration at the DPRK’s block of any independent investigation into human rights violations within North Korea. Their block is understandable: they’re trying to maintain a chokehold on information, and while their citizens are increasingly disillusioned regarding the state propaganda, it’s much easier to lie to the people within their borders than to the rest of the world. When confronted with their crimes, the DPRK consistently dismisses these accusations as lies generated by their enemies. The evidence comes in the form of guerrilla video and the testimonies of over 2,000 defectors, but Pyongyang simply declares it all nonsense, making it impossible to engage with them in any meaningful way.

What was response of the one person in the U.S. tasked with promoting and defending human rights in North Korea? “[North Korea] can address its human rights abuses—a step that would be welcomed by the international community—or face further isolation.”

Robert King and Human Rights in the DPRK
Donald Gregg and diplomatic party in Pyongyang. Image: KCNA

Ambassador King said that if the DPRK doesn’t do the one thing it has sworn never to do, then we’re just going to leave them alone. Inactivity and avoidance are our policy to protect the rights of 200,000 innocent men, women and children in North Korean death camps.

He has tried to visit North Korea in the past, in his official capacity. In August 2013, Pyongyang extended him an invitation, for which he would act as diplomat to negotiate for Kenneth Bae‘s release. At the last second, however, the DPRK withdrew the invitation. To nobody’s surprise, this charade was reenacted half a year later. In an unofficial capacity, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Donald Gregg, made his own trip to Pyongyang with several other former diplomats immediately following Ambassador King’s second denial, though not to argue for Bae’s freedom; rather, to build diplomatic bridges with North Korea. To what end, I have to ask.

This is the job description for the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, from H.R. 4011, North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, §7817(c) Duties and Responsibilities:

The Special Envoy shall—
(1) participate in the formulation and the implementation of activities carried out pursuant to this chapter;
(2) engage in discussions with North Korean officials regarding human rights;
(3) support international efforts to promote human rights and political freedoms in North Korea, including coordination and dialogue between the United States and the United Nations, the European Union, North Korea, and the other countries in Northeast Asia;
(4) consult with non-governmental organizations who have attempted to address human rights in North Korea;
(5) make recommendations regarding the funding of activities authorized in sections 7812 and 7814 of this title;
(6) review strategies for improving protection of human rights in North Korea, including technical training and exchange programs; and
(7) develop an action plan for supporting implementation of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2004/13.

Additionally, Ambassador King must annually report on his progress on the above tasks. When is the last time anyone reading these words has heard of any such progress? (I found a letter from 2010 and a speech from 2012, after learning what to search for.) Western media has zero interest in covering such a depressing topic that seems to lack in appetizing sensationalism. Now is the time for concerned citizens to ask.

U.S. Department of State
Office of the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea
2201 C St. NW, Rm. 7250
Washington, DC 20520-7250

Address your inquiries to Ambassador Robert R. King. Express interest in his cause and his office; ask him what you can do to support his work and the issue of human rights for North Korean citizens. Be respectful, not accusatory; give him every chance to represent his work in the best possible light and to great detail. Nothing useful can come from presenting as a bullet-headed, belligerent chest-thumper, a philosophy that has not occurred to either the U.S. government nor that of North Korea.

621a7-suzannescholteDespite being a Republican, Virginian Congressional candidate Suzanne Scholte is an ardent activist for North Korean human rights. I confess, I don’t know how to reconcile with a GOP member who is more interested in humanitarian causes than a xenophobic military offensive and lust for capitalist opportunities overseas, but if she states an interest in human rights, I have to encourage that. Whether or not she joins Congress, her race will likely raise further awareness for the plight of North Koreans. At least within Virginia, the same state that gets to decide, for some reason, whether the Sea of Japan will be forever known as the East Sea instead. I haven’t read up on this so I don’t understand how Virginia gets to weigh in on a body of water far outside of its jurisdiction, but then I’m a Bear of Little Brains.

What else can you do, as a citizen concerned with the suffering of a population on the other side of the world? (I assume most of my readership is in the western hemisphere, clearly.) There are many groups that are concerned with this as well. North Korea Freedom Coalition urges everyone to request their congressional representatives to support H.R. 1771, the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2013. They provide a sample letter you can use to modify and send to your representatives. Related reading: the European Union drew up an explicit list of goods prohibited for North Korean import and export.

On the other hand, not everyone agrees that the U.S.’s policy of sanctions, a policy borrowed from our engagement with Iran, is the best solution. Global Research published an article in which they liken sanctions to a form of genocidal campaign. They cite thoroughly vague word choice that, on a case-by-case basis, may allow or prohibit any form of assistance or humanitarian aid for North Korea, depending on which way the political winds are blowing. Whether we agree that weakening the nation by starving it to death is a strictly moral campaign, few people could be equipped to argue in defense of nontransparent methods and poorly defined rules of engagement.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission has recently produced a 372-page report on human rights violations perpetrated by the DPRK upon its citizens. That link also provides a 36-page summary, if you’re pressed for time. Pyongyang, as mentioned, categorically denies the reality of any word of it and denigrates it as mere propaganda. The material for this report comes from a variety of sources, primarily the testimony of North Korean defectors, supplemented by commentary from analysts and academics on North Korea. The stories in there are very grim, from the few excerpts I’ve read, so this is not for the faint of heart. It’s also pretty dense with formal writing, so in no sense is it light reading.

Further Reading: Human Rights Watch

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