To start things off, can you give a brief description of your role and responsibilities as the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues?

The position of special envoy for North Korean human rights issues is a position that Congress created by law, because there was a feeling that the US government was focusing too much attention and energy on the security issue, and we needed to give attention to the human rights issue as well. So the North Korea Human Rights Act, when it was passed in 2004, created this position and the legislation has been renewed since that time, so it continues to be a position that is filled. But the idea is that we need to focus on the human rights issue and the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues has the responsibility of keeping track of what is going on on that front, working with our allies, working with the United Nations, and working with other international agencies on human rights issues, what we can do internationally to call attention to them, information policy, and the rest of the human rights portfolio. So I work within the State Department, and I work with my State Department colleagues here, and do that kind of thing. For background, I worked for 25 years on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to a congressman from California, and I was also the staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when he was the chairman of the committee and when he was a ranking member of the committee.

The citizens of North Korea suffer from a wide range of grave human rights abuses—is the United States and/or South Korea’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights particularly prioritizing any of these abuses?

The baseline in terms of the North Korean human rights abuses is the report by the Commission of Inquiry, which was created by the UN Human Rights Council just over a year ago and issued in February of this year. The Commission wants to catalogue abuses based on extensive interviews with refugees from North Korea as well as meetings, discussions with specialists, and so forth. The most important conclusion it came up with is that many of the human rights abuses in North Korea reach the standard where they are considered crimes against humanity, which are very, very serious violations of human rights. But the range of issues identified—and these are listed in paragraph 76 of the report issued—include murder; enslavement; torture; imprisonment; rape; forced abortion; sexual violence; persecution on political, religious, racial, and gender grounds; forced transfer of population; enforced disappearance of persons; and known prolonged starvation. All of these are among the most serious of human rights violations, and we do not go through and say this is a priority, or this is the most important of these violations. I think our attitude is that these violations are all part of an attitude towards human rights that is out of touch with the standards that other countries, or many and eventually all countries, accept for human rights, and the North Koreans ought to make improvements and changes to move away from these violations.

It seems to be a long established fact, and certainly one of the greatest difficulties of this issue, that the North Korean government will continue to deny claims that it is violating its citizens’ rights, and will refuse to cooperate with international players—does the United States or United Nations have any specific plans for combatting this obstacle?

One of the main things we have done is try to bring attention to these human rights violations. We, as you know, are very active supporters of the creation of the Commission of Inquiry, and we have supported the work and the efforts of the Commission. One of the four places it has held public hearings was here in the United States in Washington, DC, for two days. We have tried to work through many of the UN agencies that deal with these human rights issues—to call attention to them, to urge the North Koreans to take corrective action, and so on—and we continue to do this on an ongoing basis.

What are your thoughts on South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s approach on inter-Korean relations, and which type of advances or reforms do you think the South Korean administration should primarily and/or initially push for in North Korea to have the greatest resulting impact on humanitarian efforts?

We work very closely with South Korea in terms of dealing with North Korea. We have a treaty relationship with South Korea. We have a cordial relationship: we discuss issues of all kinds with South Korea, and one of the main topics we discuss with South Koreans frequently is the situation of North Korea, particularly the human rights situation in North Korea. There are frequent exchanges between think tanks in South Korea and the US—I have participated in many conferences, both in Washington and in Seoul, where South Koreans and Americans get together to talk about these issues. So we coordinate, we talk, we discuss, and we share information. I am not sure that it is terribly appropriate for me to be talking about where South Korea is headed or what it is going to do, but I think that whatever happens, we are going to work closely together and make sure that we share information about what we are doing and where we are going.

Many have criticized former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy and the concept of humanitarian aid with no strings attached. How do you feel about this, and what kind of policies related to humanitarian efforts do you think foreign players other than South Korea should approach the North Korean government with?

With regard to humanitarian assistance to North Korea, the United States has a policy that involves three major points. Number one, in providing humanitarian assistance, the decision to provide aid should be based on assessment of need, and when there is a need it should be done based on that need and not based on political considerations. This is something that is not written into US law, but it is a fundamental principle of international humanitarian assistance everywhere. We do not provide food on the basis of requesting political action. The second consideration in terms of humanitarian aid is that we need to be able to monitor the distribution of the assistance, to make sure that it reaches those who are most in need—in other words, those for whom the aid is intended. Again, this is a principle that humanitarian assistance workers all around the world accept and follow in their practice and that I think is an important consideration as well. When we have provided aid to the North Koreans in the past, it was important to us to be able to monitor where and how it was distributed. The third consideration is that when we make decisions in the United States on providing aid, we have got to balance the demand, the needs, and the conditions that we are facing in other places around the world and make the decision based on competing interests and by answering where the need is greatest and where we can have the greatest impact. These are important considerations. They are the kind of issues that people who provide humanitarian assistance either bilaterally and by different governments or UN agencies take into account. I firmly believe that those conditions ought to be met, and I think most governments, including the South Korean government, accept these principles as well.

It seems like China and Russia seem to be following differing paths with regards to their evolving relationships with the North Korean regime, as each possibly adopt different attitudes toward the regime than they have in the past. How do you think the Chinese-North Korean and Russian-North Korean relationships will affect North Korea’s global position and stance in the future?

China is obviously very important to North Korea. Most of the foreign investment that takes place in North Korea, or much of it, comes from China. Also, a lot of the shipping that goes into North Korea comes through China, so China is a very important player; also, of course, China and North Korea have historically been very close. At the same time, there are very clear indications that China is uncomfortable with North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is very clear that the relationship between North Korea and China has had problems, in part, I think, because of the North’s insistence on the pursuit of nuclear weapons. The president of South Korea was in Beijing within a few months of being inaugurated, and South Korea recently hosted the president of China for an important state visit. It is noteworthy that the new leader of North Korea and the president of China have not exchanged visits yet. I think this reflects some strain in the relationship because of the nuclear issue.

Russia is another interesting question. Russia is a participant in the Six-Party talk process, and historically, particularly at the beginning of the Korean War and continuing up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and North Korea have had a fairly cordial relationship. The Russians continue to have a good relationship with North Korea, but there is less of an urgent connection—there is not that much of a trade relationship between North Korea and Russia. There are railroad links that have been recently improved, and this continues, but there is not a lot of common interest between the two countries. The North Koreans recently supported Russia on issues related to Ukraine in what was probably an effort to try to improve that relationship, but the relationship is not as developed or as important as many of the other ties that North Korea has or would like to have.

What kind of role, if different from the past or present, do you see the United States playing within the next few years regarding North Korea’s general isolationism, including issues, such as nuclear disarmament and the denial of human rights?

North Korea’s isolationism is something that I think we would like to see end. There is a real advantage to having North Korea involved in and participating in the world. One of the things that is clear is that right now North Korea is outside the consensus of where most other nations are in terms of standards of relationship with neighbors and other countries. Clearly on human rights, North Korea is outside the mainstream. I think there is a real interest in bringing North Korea into the international mainstream if North Korea is willing to make the changes to make this possible. One of the things that I think contributes to the isolation in North Korea is the state-imposed isolation on information. North Korea is a country where it is illegal to listen to foreign radio broadcast. It is illegal for North Koreans to watch South Korean-produced radio, television, movies, and so forth. Because of the changes that are taking place in the world, I think many of these efforts to isolate North Korea are breaking down. There is increasing contact between the North Koreans and Chinese as trade increases between their two countries. There are increasing numbers of Chinese going back and forth into North Korea because of economic investments there. It is increasingly difficult to isolate North Korea from international information. Yes, North Korea is one of the few places on the face of the Earth where there is not some access to the internet. China and Iran, by contrast, are very much open societies compared with North Korea. But increasingly, there is greater information getting into North Korea. Radio broadcasts in the Korean language from China and South Korea, as well as broadcasts such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are reaching North Korea, and there are indications that significant numbers of North Koreans listen to foreign radio broadcasts. North Korea is one of the few places left where even though it is illegal to listen to foreign broadcasts, such broadcasts are one of the most important sources of foreign news information. We also have tried to encourage contacts between US NGOs and North Korea; this, however, is increasingly difficult because of the arrest of US citizens in North Korea, which has made many people leery of going into North Korea. But I think North Korea’s isolation is beginning to break down. That is positive and should be encouraged.

In closing, do you have anything else to add?

North Korea is one of the more serious and difficult problems that the world is facing and that the United States is facing in terms of our foreign policy.