North Korean Human Rights: Rex Tillerson as Blank Slate

Will the Trump administration maintain and extend US pressure on North Korea on the human rights front?

Will the Executive Branch aim to extend and intensify US criticism of and dialogue with Chinese counterparts on topics regarding the PRC’s mistreatment, hukou discrimination, imprisonment, and/or refoulement of North Korean refugees?

At a 29 November 2016 event at the Bush Library, Senator Lieberman said keeping up the human rights pressure would be logical under Trump, but is far from a fait accompli. Now Victor Cha, who organized and appeared at that event, appears to be in the mix for an Assistant Secretary of State position, which would presumably a better chance of that pressure being kept up.

A number of analysts have advocated that the Trump administration undertake immediate negotiations with DPRK. I wonder if those well-meaning individuals have considered that a Trump administration could actually get the North Koreans one step closer to nuclear compromise or the longed-for panacea of a peace treaty by watering down the North Korean Human Rights Act (HR 4011, 2004) or dropping human rights pressure altogether? That is how I read the North Korean statements, anyway — they don’t hammer at it and say it’s going to tear down their social system for nothing, and the US/UN has succeeded in now adding it to the mix of pressure points.

I look forward to hearing more about Rex Tillerson has to say about the subject, and if he’s got any room in his binders for Bob King, or Justice Michael Kirby (the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK) for that matter.

This is more than a matter of rhetoric. The North Korean Human Rights Act (HR 4011, 2004, renewed in 2008) is due for renewal in 2017, and little to nothing has been said about the office now held by Robert King — the foremost institutional symbol in Washington, D.C. for the issue — or if King will stay on during the Trump administration.

Diplopundit, an excellent blog focusing on the Foreign Service and the US State Department, has some well-informed responses to that very question (see the discussion thread on the following tweet).

Tillerson’s opening remarks at his Senate hearing (during which this post is being prepared) discussed advocacy of human rights, the specifics for which were limited to Cuba. The potential Secretary of State also failed to breathe the word “Europe” in that statement. One gets the feeling that, like much of the Trump transition, Tillerson is already in over his head, and there is likely to be an internal struggle over the role of human rights in the overall approach to China and North Korea which is likely to take several months to become clear.

This post originated as a response to Joshua Stanton’s One Free Korea post of 10 January 2017. Image via Sanho Tree


  1. Hello Adam-
    My name is Eddie Jacobs and I am creating a small exhibition on the GLF for a temporary educational exhibition. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to share the actual slide of “Map of excess death rates during/after the onset of the Great Leap Forward”. It seems like the perfect visual aid to what we are trying to convey. I would of course give full attribution (as you would specify). This is for a not-for-profit institution, but if the exhibition becomes permanent we would speak to you about rights usage of your work.

    Thank you for your consideration and I would be happy to discuss if you need further clarification.
    (email address bounced back)

    Logo DarkBlue.png
    Edward Jacobs I Partner
    US+ 1.917.749.8400
    Skype: mishkenot

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