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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Update on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea

Robert R. King
Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues 

Washington, DC
March 14, 2014

1:00 P.M. EDT


AMBASSADOR KING: Appreciate the opportunity to talk with you this afternoon. Last year was an important year in terms of North Korean human rights. Just a year ago this month, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish a Commission of Inquiry to examine human rights in the DPRK. A short while later, three distinguished individuals were appointed to this Commission of Inquiry. The chairman was Michael Kirby, who’s a Justice of the High Court of Australia; Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian who had earlier and still continues to serve as the Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights for the Human Rights Council. He’s a former Prosecutor General for the Government of Indonesia. And the third member was Sonja Biserko, who is a former Yugoslav diplomat and a prominent human rights activist in Serbia. These three people have played a very important role in terms of the preparation of the report that’s being – that’s been issued and that will be discussed on Monday in Geneva.

The Commission, I think, has conducted an exemplary investigation. The Commission held a series of public hearings in Seoul, in Tokyo, in London, in Washington. They heard from victims of human rights abuse in North Korea. They heard from specialists who analyze and understand academically what’s going on in North Korea. They held private meetings with witnesses who preferred not to appear in public because of relative still living in North Korea. It was a remarkably transparent and open process. Most the hearings that were held were public hearings to which there were a large number of people who observed the hearings. The hearings were videoed, and they’re available online on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ webpage. There’s also a transcript of what was said during the course of the investigation. Judge Kirby has been remarkably available to the press in terms of discussing the report, discussing the Commission’s recommendations. The report was made public a little over – or a little less than four weeks ago. Justice Kirby gave a press conference on the occasion when the report was released.

The Human Rights Council will have a formal interactive dialogue on Monday where the Commission will formally present its report to the commission – too many commissions there – and will have a discussion, an opportunity to raise questions of the commission members about their recommendations.

The U.S. has been a strong supporter of this process. We have been an active participant. We’ve been engaged with the Commission of Inquiry, with other members of the Human Rights Council in terms of the preparation for the report. We continue the process, and we welcome this spotlight on human rights conditions in North Korea. We think it’s helpful to understand what’s going on in North Korea, we think it’s helpful to have an international body looking at these issues, and we appreciate this opportunity to examine what’s going on with regard to North Korea’s human rights record.

If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.

MODERATOR: Great. Just a reminder, of course. When it’s time, please wait for the microphone. Please also state your name and the outlet that you’re with, and for the people in New York, please come to the podium when you’re ready to ask a question.

So with that, let’s get started. Yes, right here in the middle.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. Shaun Tandon with AFP. I wanted to see what you saw as the further steps following the Commission of Inquiry, whether you see some action through the United Nations. The conventional wisdom is that China may be less than enthusiastic about referral of its close ally over alleged crimes against humanity. Does the United States see it as a priority to pursue this through UN channels?

AMBASSADOR KING: We think it’s very productive to pursue it through UN channels and we’ll hope to do that. The Commission has recommended that there be some kind of ongoing process that continues, some kind of a field mechanism, to continue identifying individuals who are responsible in order to establish responsibility for the violations that have gone on. I know the High Commissioner and members of the Human Rights Council are looking at this issue as to how we might be able to continue some kind of ongoing collection of information that would be useful.

There is a resolution that is being drafted that will be considered by the Human Rights Council, probably voted on by the end of next week. The final text has not yet been introduced. I don’t know the details of what the text will ultimately have. There are a number of additional possibilities in terms of UN action, and I’m sure the resolution will include some recommendations in that regard.


QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. My name is Bingru Wang, with Hong Kong Phoenix TV. Could you please update us the latest status of your effort to secure Kenneth Bae’s release? And since North Korea has already withdrawn twice of your – of their invitation, how do this complicate your diplomacy with North Korea? And could you share – could you please tell us or shed any light on why North Korea withdrew their invitation? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KING: First of all, with regard to American citizens, the welfare, well-being of American citizens is one of the highest concerns that the United States has, and we continue to be concerned about the welfare of Kenneth Bae. When Kenneth Bae’s mother and sister and son were here in Washington a couple of weeks ago, they met with Secretary of State Kerry, who again affirmed our interest, our concern. And we’re hopeful that Mr. Bae will be released. We have made the request on a number of occasions. We continue to make that request to the North Koreans, that we urge that he be granted amnesty, that he be released on humanitarian grounds, and we have made that request.

We have made the request that I would be willing to go to Pyongyang to discuss his case. I’ve been invited twice and disinvited twice. We have made clear to the North Koreans that my invitation – or my request to come to North Korea still stands, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to have an opportunity to discuss the case, and hopefully, to secure his release.

In terms of why the North Koreans have disinvited me, that’s probably a question you’re better off to ask the North Koreans.

QUESTION: Hyodong Roh, with the Yonhap News Agency. I have two questions for you. Recently, Ambassador Donald Gregg said North Korean officials canceled invitations to you because of B-52 bomber flight drills. Have you got anything from North Korean officials? And what do you discuss with the North Koreans in New York channel?

My second question is: Do you think the North Korean human right issues should be put on the negotiation table if the Six-Party Talks resume sometime in the future?

AMBASSADOR KING: With regard to Ambassador Gregg’s comment, we have seen the comments that he made. We’ve also seen comments that have been made by the North Koreans. Yes, we’ve seen those comments.

With regard to human rights being included in broader discussions with North Korea, I think we’ve taken the view that an improvement in the relationship between North Korea and the United States will depend on improvement in the North Korean record on human rights. It’s much easier to have a good relationship with countries that have a good record on human rights, and that clearly is the case with North Korea.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) on the agenda within the Six-Party process?

AMBASSADOR KING: I don’t know that it needs to be put on the agenda. It’s certainly on the agenda in terms of U.S. talks with North Korea. When I was in Pyongyang a couple of years ago to talk about other issues, we did have discussions about human rights issues. They know our interest and concern for those issues. So yeah, I don’t know whether it needs to be formally put on the agenda. We’re not having Six-Party Talks right now. Let’s get the Six-Party Talks underway, and then we can look at what we want to add as well.


QUESTION: Hi. I just wanted to follow up. Chen Weihua, China Daily. I mean, you said – I mean, to me it’s the human rights issue is the evolving issue between even China and the U.S. since Nixon days, so – but you choose to – Nixon choose to engage in China. I mean, why don’t you follow up, not choose to engage North Korea in terms of dialogue instead of simply through sort of pressure? I think sanction maybe more – I mean, do you actually have any channel of communication with North Korea on such issue or other issues at the moment?

AMBASSADOR KING: When we need to communicate with the North Koreans, we communicate with them, and we do so. As I say, whenever we have reason to communicate with them, we do.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Hang on. Can you wait for the microphone? Thanks.

QUESTION: But you don’t think to engage them for human rights dialogue is a good idea?

AMBASSADOR KING: No, I think it would be useful to engage them for human rights dialogue. I raised that issue when I was in Pyongyang and in meetings that took place in New York afterwards. I think there’s reason to engage them. On the other hand, there are also serious reasons to deal with the nuclear issue, and I think at this point the nuclear issue is the one that is getting the highest attention.

QUESTION: Hi. Alex Wortman with NHK. I just wanted to follow up on your comments before about you saying that it was easier to engage with countries that have better human rights records. Staying on that subject, does that mean that the two – the nuclear disarmament issue and the human rights abuse issue, are they interlinked? Do you see them as having to be – you can’t have one without the other, or do you separate them? I just want a little bit of how you evaluate when you step into these negotiations. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KING: You’ve heard Lyndon Johnson’s famous expression that you’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I think in terms of looking at our relationship with North Korea, we have a channel where we’re trying to carry out discussions on the nuclear issue. We should also have a channel to be able to carry out conversations on the human rights issue as well. They don’t have to be linked.

MODERATOR: Yes, gentleman in the back.

QUESTION: Matthew Pennington from AP. Ambassador King, does – the Commission of Inquiry recommended referral to the International Criminal Court. Does the U.S. support that aim? And also, I mean, I guess as a pre-step, do you think that the commission’s report should be referred to the UN Security Council? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR KING: Both of those issues are raised in the report that the Commission prepared. We have been looking at those recommendations. We’re in the process of working with a number of other countries on a resolution that will respond to the issues that have been raised in the report. The resolution is being drafted by the European Union and the Japanese. We’ve consulted with both of them. We’re consulting internally in terms of this and trying to work out a text. There isn’t a text that’s been agreed on yet, and so these issues have not been resolved.

MODERATOR: Are there any further questions? Oh, yes, we do. Right here.

QUESTION: Mikyung Kim from Seoul Shinmun Daily, Korea. How effective you think the U.S. and the international community’s address on the human right issue on North Korea – in North Korea have been so far? Because after Kim Jong-un regime started, some people say the human rights situation, it’s deteriorating. So U.S. and the international community, like UN’s push for – I mean against North Korea is not that effective, so do you think we need to put more pressure on North Korea after the Kim Jong-un regime took power two years ago, or you just stay in the same position? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KING: We continue to press the North Korean government on its human rights record, and we will continue to do that. There are some areas where, for example, in the number of refugees who’ve been able to leave North Korea, the numbers have declined since Kim Jong-un became the leader. In other areas, conditions remain bad, and so we’ll continue to work on this. Dealing with human rights is not something where you go out and strike a blow and it’s done and you move on. It’s something that requires consistent effort over time, and we need to continue to press for improvement in human rights in North Korea, and we’ll continue to do that.

MODERATOR: Okay. And way back in the back. Yes, thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you for your time. My name is Min Shim. I’m from Seoul Broadcasting System, SBS. There are – recently four U.S. congressmen submitted a resolution to a House committee calling for a reunion of Koreans in the United States. So there are a great number of Korean Americans who have been waiting for their chance to meet their families in North Korea. So I wonder if – have you ever discussion – did you ever had a discussion with your members or any plans about this? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KING: I’ve had discussions with the staff and with members of Congress about this particular resolution and about the issue of Korean Americans who have relatives still living in North Korea and their desire to meet with their family members. We’ve also had conversations with the American Red Cross about trying to work out ways that this might be done. So far we have not had much success on that, but as with many other things, we’ve watched very closely what has happened in South Korea, the recent meetings there which were very much followed closely by Korean Americans here in the United States. And we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to work out an arrangement so that Americans of Korean ancestry will be able to meet with relatives of North Korea as well. And so we continue to be very supportive of trying to make progress on that.

MODERATOR: Oh. Yeah, go ahead, Alex. Yeah, it’s all right.

QUESTION: Sorry, I just had another follow-up about the UN Security Council. I know you didn’t – you said that it’s a – the issue hasn’t been resolved yet. But I was wondering what the U.S. position might be if it made it there. Do you have any concerns about the U.S. position conflicting with China’s position on this issue? I think a lot of people believe that the U.S. puts more emphasis on the nuclear issue than human rights, and so I think there’s some speculation that the U.S. might shy away in terms of this in favor of making a deal on the nuclear issue.

And then also, do you know if – if it doesn’t go to UN Security Council, or maybe after it goes through that, might it go through the International Criminal Court? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KING: We’re looking at those options, both of which have been recommended by the Commission. We’re looking at them closely. The question about taking the issue to the Security Council is a question of the availability of time on the Security Council to consider it. The other issue is what kind of action the council might take, and if it did, what would that do? It’s a question of looking at the pros and cons and the balance, and we haven’t reached a conclusion as to where we are on that.

With regard to the relationship with China and North Korea, on the Chinese nuclear issue, we have had frequent discussions with the Government of China. They have been positive discussions, and I thank both China and the United States have indicated our very strong interest in seeing North Korea move away from nuclear weapons and towards the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And so on those issues, we have been working very closely with the Chinese, yes.

MODERATOR: And then I think there was a question in the back. No?

QUESTION: Actually, I was going to follow up on the UN Security Council issue. I would like to – oh, sorry. Radio Free Asia, Hee Jung Yang from Radio Free Asia. You mentioned that U.S. position is not clear at this point regarding –

AMBASSADOR KING: Not resolved.

QUESTION: Not resolved at this point. But as far as I know, UK Government has – especially parliamentarians that has outspokenly supported strong support – shown strong support. Is there any reason why U.S. position is not decided yet?

AMBASSADOR KING: I think we are supportive of examining the issue. We’ve been very supportive of the Commission of Inquiry. If it can be worked out to have this debated and discussed in the Security Council, we certainly would be supportive of doing that. I think it’s a question of what’s going on. Right now, the Security Council is fairly fully occupied trying to deal with issue like Ukraine and this kind of thing, and it’s a question of can we get it on the agenda and can we have a productive discussion, and we’re hopeful that we can.

MODERATOR: Any last questions? Yeah, Bingru, up front here.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have two follow-ups. On the Human Rights Report, in – after you released the report, China already said China will block the report from reaching International Criminal Court. And then China foreign ministry said this issue concerning human rights should be solved through constructive dialogue. So how are you going to have China on your side in terms of human rights in North Korea?

And the second follow-up, on Kenneth Bae, is: He was detained in 2012. Since then, basically the State Department hasn’t – was – is not able to move forward any step. So what else, what more can you do to secure his release?

AMBASSADOR KING: We continue to urge the North Koreans to release Kenneth Bae. He is in their custody. He was in their country. He was arrested when he went into North Korea. So it’s difficult for us because we don’t have control of him. We continue to urge the North Koreans to release him on humanitarian grounds. Mr. Bae is suffering from some health conditions, as you know. He was in the hospital for a period of time. He’s been returned to a prison camp, and we’re hopeful that he will be released on humanitarian reasons, and until that happens, that he’ll be allowed to return to the hospital because of his health condition.

QUESTION: Are you optimistic?

AMBASSADOR KING: I’m hopeful. Optimistic, I don’t know. As I say, we’ve expressed our interest and concern. The fact that the North Koreans at least were willing to invite me twice suggests maybe they’re willing to talk about the issue. We’ll hope they’ll extend the third invitation and the third time will be the charm.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

AMBASSADOR KING: With regard to China, we have discussions – we have very productive discussions with the Chinese on human rights issues. We have a dialogue every year – once in the United States, the following year in China. We raise all kinds of human rights questions and human rights issues. And those are productive discussions. And I think we continue to have that dialogue with the Chinese, and I think we both find it productive. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to move in that direction with the North Koreans as well, and that we’ll be able to achieve the same kind of progress that we have in our relationship with China.

QUESTION: Just final one. You okay to accept North Korea to use Kenneth Bae as a bargain chip?

AMBASSADOR KING: The North Koreans said they were not going to use Kenneth Bae as a bargaining chip. We don’t think that’s appropriate, absolutely not.

MODERATOR: All right. If there are no further questions, we can thank Ambassador King for coming.

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