President Signs North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act

Image result for george w. bush institute logo

JULY 23, 2018

by Victor Cha

On Friday, President Trump signed the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017 into law.  This legislation is the latest update to the original North Korea Human Rights Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2004.  

The law provides support for efforts to get information into the largely isolated country, including broadcasting and other efforts; NGOs that are providing assistance and conducting research on human rights conditions inside North Korea; and provides for a State Department Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights. As with the previous versions of the law, the extension signed last week had strong, bipartisan support in Congress. 

What does this act mean for U.S. – North Korea relations?  George W. Bush Institute Fellow Victor Cha answers our questions.

The Act establishes certain conditions that must be met in order for North Korea to receive humanitarian assistance. If the conditions in the act are not met, what does this mean for North Korea-U.S. relations?

Unfortunately, the North Korea regime, despite its leader’s recent appearances on the world stage, has shown no inclination to improve its human rights record. The main implication for U.S. policy is that we need to do a better job of integrating the human rights agenda into our mainstream security concerns and asks in our negotiations with North Korea. I know that many in the expert community in Washington D.C. see this as a second-order issue when the primary concern is nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. However, domestic reform on the part of the government that addressed the world’s serious concerns about human dignity inside the North would be a significant signal that the regime really has made a strategic decision to open up.

Despite the re-authorization of the Act, the special envoy position has yet to be filled. Why is it important for this position to be filled and what impact can this individual have?

The original purpose of designating an envoy was to demonstrate the US government’s attention to the issue. That is, the selection of a “point person” who would be the central figure for the policy, for consciousness-raising, and who would have direct access to the White House and the President in carrying our his or her job to address the human suffering in North Korea. When Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State, a decision was made to collapse the responsibilities of this position into an acting undersecretary’s portfolio, which undercut the original high-profile intent of the envoy position.

How do we reopen the pathway for North Korea refugees to come to the U.S.?

President Bush established the North Korea refugee resettlement program in the United States making our country the only one outside of South Korea to have such a program. Over the last couple of years, the number of refugees coming to the U.S. have grown smaller, in no small part because of immigration policies under the Trump administration. Putting aside the immigration ban issue (which applies to all), there are a couple of specific suggestions for enlarging the “pipe” for North Korean refugees to come to the U.S.

First, we could do a better job of advertising the program. Many defectors from North Korea who settle in the South do not know such a program exists. Second, the support network for defectors in the U.S. could be better coordinated on a national level. Right now, a loose network of churches and other groups provide support to defectors, but there is no organized national program as it exists in South Korea. I don’t think we should have a similar government-run program just for North Korea. That is not feasible. But an NGO organized network might be able to better pool resources to help these individuals. It is also worth noting that many of the defectors who make it to the U.S. are truly extraordinary people. They exhibit a drive for freedom, education, and individuality that will ensure their success as future leaders should that fateful day of Korean unification ever happen.

This article was originally published by The George W. Bush Institute.