Congress Sends Bill on North Korea Human Rights to President’s Desk

Patrick Goodenough | June 29, 2018 | 4:19am EDT
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A photo released by North Korean regime media shows President Trump and Kim Jong Un at their summit in Singapore on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. (Photo: Uriminzokkiri)

( – As the Trump administration pursues a deal to shut down North Korea’s nuclear programs, Congress is sending to the president’s desk a bipartisan bill to reauthorize 18-year-old human rights legislation that has long angered the regime in Pyongyang.

North Korea’s grim human rights record did not feature in a document signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un at their June 12 summit in Singapore, although Trump said at his post-summit press conference that the topic “was discussed” and “will be discussed more in the future.”

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved and sent to Trump’s desk legislation reauthorizing the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) for four more years.

Originally passed by the House last September (in a 415-0 vote) and the Senate in April, the bill also updates earlier versions, for example providing authorities for disseminating information to the North Korean people that reflect technological advances – going beyond radio broadcasts and including mobile devices, wi-fi, USB drives, SD cards etc.

It also renews the reporting obligations of a North Korean human rights special envoy. The State Department position was created by NKHRA but has been vacant since the last holder of the post, Joseph Yun, retired in March.

The reauthorization bill was authored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) while co-sponsors included Reps. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) – all members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

After its passage Wednesday by unanimous consent, Ros-Lehtinen made clear its supporters’ desire to see human rights concerns addressed in the administration’s dealings with the Kim regime.

“In its pursuit of a landmark deal with Pyongyang, the administration may allow human rights to fall on the priority list, but with Congress sending this bill to the president’s desk, we have demonstrated that we will not allow human rights conditions in North Korea to go ignored,” she said.

“Congress has a long history of shining a light on North Korean abuses and promoting the work of human rights in that nation. These issues must not ignored or dealt with separately and any deal that is reached must include a substantial human rights component.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced the bill’s Senate companion, welcomed House passage.

“This bipartisan bill makes clear our commitment to prioritizing and defending human rights in North Korea and I look forward to President Trump signing it into law soon,” he said. “In the weeks ahead, it is critical that the United States hold the North Korean regime accountable for its abuses, including its extensive political prison camps, and engaging in abductions, torture, forced starvation, and sexual violence against women.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), another supporter, said that even if North Korea denuclearizes, it “will never see meaningful investment so long as regime gulags remain open and brazen killings continue. A lasting deal will require real improvements for the North Korean people.”

Trump came under fire this month for comments seen as downplaying human rights abuses. In an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier immediately after the Singapore summit, he agreed that Kim Jong Un has done what Baier called “some really bad things,” but also said that so had “a lot of other people.”

The NKHRA provided U.S. funding to promote democracy and human rights inside North Korea, and to help refugees fleeing from it. It also expanded broadcasts of U.S. radio programs into the isolated country.

This marks its fourth reauthorization, and the first since a U.N. commission on inquiry in a landmark 2014 report detailed abuses including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearance and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

When the commission presented its report the chairman declared that the atrocities committed in North Korea were “without parallel in the modern world.”

It remains to be seen how the Stalinist regime will react to the reauthorization, but the NKHRA has attracted its strong condemnation over the years.

After President Bush signed it into law in October 2004, the KCNA state news agency said the U.S. was essentially “making the ‘destruction’ and ‘overthrow’ of the system of the DPRK its policy.”

When the U.S. went through a periodic evaluation at the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011, North Korea demanded that it scrap the NKHRA.

In a 2014 report by a body called the “DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies,” the regime said passage of the NKHRA had legalized U.S. “interference in the internal affairs of the DPRK” and its plans to topple the ruling system.

When the NKHRA was going through the legislative process in 2004, its original sponsor, then-Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa), in a floor speech confronted concerns about its intent.

The bill, he said, “is motivated by a genuine desire for improvements in human rights, refugee protection, and humanitarian transparency.”

“It is not a pretext for a hidden strategy to provoke regime collapse or to seek collateral advantage in ongoing strategic negotiations,” Leach added, in a reference to six-party nuclear talks then underway.

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