It was not long after Dr. Robert King’s confirmation in 2009 as the U.S. special envoy for human rights issues in North Korea, when a South Korean news agency published an article on the “Fletcher Mafia” taking over U.S.-North Korea relations.
Ambassador King soon found himself giving a talk to the Fletcher Washington Club. He was introduced by Fletcher Dean Stephen Bosworth, whose ties to the region include formerly serving as U.S. Department of State’s special representative for North Korea Policy and U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea. After the talk, the journalist who penned the original article introduced himself to King. He, too, was a Fletcher graduate.
The Fletcher School connection indeed runs deep in U.S.-Korea relations, King (MALD ’68, PhD ’70) told faculty and students at a November 5 speech, which was part of the Charles Francis Adams lecture series. And human rights issues run deep in U.S. foreign policy—as they should, he said, given the role those rights play in the character and the history of the United States.
“Human rights define who we are as a nation. They’re what make Americans American… It’s the fundamental ideas of freedom and democracy and human rights,” said King. “It’s important when we look at foreign policy to look at these values and to make human rights a value in our foreign policy.
“We need to push an agenda that encourages respect for human rights… whether we agree or disagree with (a country),” he said.
North Korea is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of its human rights record, he said and one of the most isolated places on the planet for access to information.
King noted a number of important ways through which the U.S. promotes human rights. The first is “naming and shaming,” calling attention to human rights abuses, for example, in the Department of State’s annual reports on human rights around the world or human trafficking, he said.
Another way, according to King, is working through international organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights Council to call attention to the problem and urge change and reform.
“The U.S. is encouraging engagement with North Korea, not directly, but through American NGOs who have contact with the country,” King added. These include religious groups as well as organizations that provide medical and humanitarian assistance.
Given North Korea’s isolation, much of the information that analysts and observers glean about the situation inside the country comes from the thousands of refugees that have fled in the past two decades.
In February, King met with a group of women who had recently arrived at a South Korean refugee processing center near Seoul. All six women said they had tried at least one previous time to flee. One woman had tried six times; each time previous, she had been returned to North Korea and sent to forced labor reeducation camps.
Her desperation to escape the misery in North Korea was so great, he said, that she would have committed suicide if she hadn’t succeeded this time.
“She said ‘I would either make it or I would kill myself.’ She brought with her arsenic tablets that she would take if she had been captured and sent back,” King said during the talk.
Ambassador King’s diplomatic career was preceded by almost a quarter century of work as the chief of staff for California’s Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos. During that time, he also served as staff director for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic staff director and other positions. He also worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich.
He has published five books and more than three dozen articles on international relations.
--Mike Eckel, MALD 2013 candidate