The State Department Reorganization and North Korea Policy

Kent Boydston (PIIE)



Amidst the din of North Korea news—from missiles and nuclear tests to “fire and fury”—is the question of U.S. capability to manage this and other crises. The DPRK also found its way into the news on this front in recent weeks as a result of Secretary Tillerson’s reorganization at the State Department. I first heard about these developments through the merging of the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea with the Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. But it extends to the Six Party Talks envoy and some shifts with respect to sanctions policy as well.

It may sound like special pleading, and there is self-interest here to be sure. But these bureaucratic shifts appear to undercut capacity, both in assuring that human rights remain a part of the North Korea policy discussion and in trying to frame parameters to get back to talks.

Secretary Tillerson’s special envoy reshuffle was spelled out in a letter to Senator Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As CNN reports, of 66 special envoys, 30 will keep their title and position, 21 will be integrated into bureaus, 9 will be eliminated entirely, and 5 will be folded into other positions.

The U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea was mandated by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 so the position cannot simply be removed at the Secretary’s discretion. However, as former Special Envoy Robert King—who is now with CSIS—noted recently, the law expired on August 12 even as draft bills in both chambers of congress exist to reauthorize the law. King argues that the original law implies that the position must be full-time so when the bill is reauthorized Tillerson’s dual-hatting of the position would appear to be in violation of Congressional intent.

But legal issues aside, dual-hatting the position creates a bandwidth problem. As King notes, shifting North Korea responsibilities to the Undersecretary would “essentially eliminate any serious focus on human rights in North Korea.” Sadly, this move appears to be in line with Tillerson’s remarks that the State Department should distinguish between American values and national security interests and President Trump’s pledge not to “lecture” other countries on how to organize their political affairs.

Elsewhere in the reshuffle, the Special Representative for North Korea Policy fared better as the position will remain but with the qualifier that it will be “reassessed as North Korea Policy advances.” However, getting the axe completely is the Special Envoy for Six-Party Talks. This position was first created under the Bush administration to lead the Six-Party Talks process but as Tillerson’s letter succinctly states, “[The] position will be removed, as the talks ceased in 2008.” True, but as the issue reaches a denoument we clearly need a team working full time with the Chinese, Russians, Japanese and South Koreans to outline parameters for possible talks.

Another North Korea policy-relevant reorg is removing the position of the Coordinator for Sanctions Policy and moving the staff and responsibilities up to Policy Planning Staff in the Office of the Secretary, which coordinates long-term strategy and policy across the Department. It is hard to assess whether this is an upgrade or not, as Policy Planning’s links to operations vary greatly across administrations. Tillerson has been a steadfast advocate for sanctions against North Korea, and has pleaded with countries to cut ties with Pyongyang. Indeed, some of the fruits of that labor were seen in the last week as the Philippines announced they would cut trade with the DPRK, and Mexico and Peru booted out their respective North Korean ambassadors. But working this seam is crucial; sanctions enforcement is a retail business that needs a lot of knowledge of proliferation financing networks.

In principle, every organization can use thoughtful reorganization, and the State Department is no different. But it is increasingly clear that this preoccupation is proving costly as the department continues to hemorrhage talent. Key holdovers have played a crucial role in moving North Korea policy forward; The hope is that these changes don’t do damage to our diplomatic capabilities, which are sorely needed at the moment.

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