Veteran Korean-speaking diplomat Julie Turner will fill a position that has been vacant since 2017.
US President Joe Biden has appointed a special envoy for human rights to North Korea, a position that was vacant during the presidency of his predecessor Donald Trump.
Biden has nominated Julie Turner, a Korean-speaking career diplomat who now heads the Asia division of the State Department’s human rights office, the White House said in a statement Monday.
Turner previously worked on North Korean human rights issues as a special assistant in the envoy’s office, the statement said.
The nomination still needs confirmation from the Senate, but little opposition is expected.
The ambassadorial position was mandated by Congress under a 2004 law that sought to draw attention not only to security, but also to rights issues in North Korea, one of the most repressive countries in the world.
The position has been vacant since January 2017, when Barack Obama’s envoy Robert King stepped down as part of the presidential transition.
Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was trying to get rid of the post as part of a corporate-style restructuring.
His successor, Mike Pompeo, did not fill the position as Trump pursued diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with three high-profile summits having had little lasting impact.
Some activists said that when the US tried to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table over its banned nuclear weapons program, human rights were pushed aside.
Biden has promised time and again since taking office in 2021 that human rights would be central to his foreign policy, but failed to appoint anyone to the position.
North Korea has repeatedly rejected allegations of human rights violations and blames the 2006 sanctions imposed on its missile program on the dire humanitarian situation in the country. It accuses Washington and Seoul of using the issue as a political tool to tarnish its reputation.
A landmark 2014 United Nations report on North Korean human rights concluded that North Korean security chiefs — and possibly leader Kim Jong-un himself — should face justice for overseeing a state-controlled system of Nazi-like atrocities that have sparked anger in Pyongyang.
Since then, North Korea’s coronavirus restrictions have exacerbated human rights violations, according to UN investigators, citing additional restrictions on access to information, tighter border security and heightened digital surveillance.
The US State Department, in its latest global human rights report, wrote of widespread abuses in North Korea, including a strict ban on all forms of dissent, public executions, and mass detention camps in which prisoners are subjected to forced labor and starvation.