As the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights from 2009 to 2017, Ambassador Robert R. King led efforts to ensure that human rights were an integral part of U.S. policy with North Korea. In Patterns of Impunity, he traces U.S. involvement and interest in North Korean human rights, from the adoption of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004—legislation which King himself was involved in and which called for the creation of the special envoy position—to his own negotiations with North Korean diplomats over humanitarian assistance, discussions that would ultimately end because of the death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un’s ascension as Supreme Leader, as well as continued nuclear and missile testing.
Beyond an in-depth overview of his time as special envoy, Ambassador King provides insights into the United Nations’ role in addressing the North Korean human rights crisis, including the UN Human Rights Council’s creation of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK in 2013–14, and discussions in the Security Council on North Korea human rights.
King explores subjects such as the obstacles to getting outside information to citizens of one of the most isolated countries in the world; the welfare of DPRK defectors, and how China has both abetted North Korea by returning refugees and enabled the problem of human trafficking; the detaining of U.S. citizens in North Korea and efforts to free them, including King’s escorting U.S. citizen Eddie Jun back from Pyongyang in 2011; and the challenges of providing humanitarian assistance to a country with no formal relations with the United States and where separating human rights from politics is virtually impossible.
Robert R. King was the 2019–20 Koret Fellow for the fall quarter at Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. From 2009 to 2017 King served as the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the Department of State, an ambassadorial-ranked position. He has been senior advisor to the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a senior fellow at the Korea Economic Institute, and a board member of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington, DC. Previously, King served for 25 years on Capitol Hill (1983–2008) as chief of staff to Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California), and staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (2001–08).
King is realistic about how painstakingly difficult it is to achieve progress on these issues ― but he illustrates that pressing for change can yield results. He points to the improvement of rights of the disabled in North Korea as one victory.
The former special envoy’s account is timely: It comes after what King describes as U.S. disinterest on DPRK human rights issues during the last four years of fire, fury and summitry between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
With the Biden administration’s desire for a “human rights up front” approach this is a must-read for all who work in the human rights space and who want to understand the human rights tragedy in North Korea.