Biden looks to fill long-vacant North Korean human rights post

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SEOUL, Jan. 24 (UPI) — U.S. President Joe Biden nominated a career diplomat as a new special envoy for North Korean human rights, moving to fill a post that has been vacant for six years.

The White House announced Monday that Julie Turner, a 16-year veteran of the State Department’s Office of East Asia and the Pacific, is the nominee. Turner currently heads up the office’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor and has focused on North Korean rights issues in her career, the White House said.

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A 2004 law mandates that the president appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights but the position has not been held since January 2017, when Robert King stepped down at the end of President Barack Obama‘s final term in office.

The role was never filled during the administration of President Donald Trump, who oversaw a period of diplomatic rapprochement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

South Korea also left its own envoy position vacant under former President Moon Jae-in, who sought to downplay rights issues in an effort to make progress with Pyongyang at the negotiating table.

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Nuclear talks broke down in 2019, however, and North Korea has since ramped up its weapons tests and military provocations to their highest levels in years.

Current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol appointed political science professor Lee Shin-wha as special human rights envoy in July, just months after taking office. Yoon has recalibrated Seoul’s stance toward Pyongyang, taking a stronger defense posture and reviving several other North Korean human rights initiatives.

Biden, meanwhile, has framed human rights as a key part of his administration’s foreign policy and advocates have long been calling for the U.S. envoy role to be filled.

A 2014 Commission of Inquiry report by the United Nations documented North Korean crimes against humanity, including torture, rape, execution, deliberate starvation and forced labor, that were “without parallel in the contemporary world.”

U.N. investigators and rights groups have said that North Korea is using the COVID-19 pandemic to further isolate the country and tighten its control through heightened surveillance and brutal crackdowns on outside information.

Turner must be confirmed by the Senate. If appointed, she will serve with the rank of ambassador, the White House said.