North Korea's human rights issue may get "more emphasis" in the US House of Representatives with the Democrats winning back control in last week's midterm elections, a former US diplomat said Thursday.
Kathleen Stephens, who served as ambassador to South Korea from 2008-2011, made the remarks, noting that President Donald Trump has not paid much attention to the issue in the wake of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June.
Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, speaks during a seminar on the political and economic implications of the Nov. 6 U.S. midterm elections in Seoul on Nov. 15, 2018 in this photo provided by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. (Yonhap)
"I think it is notable that the North Korean human rights act was extended after the Singapore summit by the Congress, indicating continued congressional interest in staying engaged on that," she said, referring to the law aimed at promoting rights and freedom in the North.
"That is actually one of the very few bipartisan pieces of legislation passed by the Congress during the Trump era. That bipartisan interest will continue and may be given additional emphasis in the Democratic-led House," she added.
Stephens was attending a seminar on the political and economic implications of the Nov. 6 midterm elections, which was hosted by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy and Korea Economic Institute of America.
Last year and early this year, Trump highlighted Pyongyang's woeful human rights records, sparking speculation that he could leverage the issue to bring the North out for dialogue on its denuclearization.
During his parliamentary speech in Seoul in November last year, Trump depicted the reclusive regime as a "hell no person deserves," saying the world has watched the "results of a tragic experiment in a laboratory of history."
However, the US president has refrained from verbal attacks on the North's rights issue that could derail diplomacy for its denuclearization and a lasting peace on the divided peninsula.
As an impact of the midterm elections on US foreign policy, observers said that Washington officials will come under tighter scrutiny as Democrats will have more ability to investigate, demand documentation and question government officials.
But Stanley Roth, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, does not think that the congressional role is that crucial.
"I think that Congress is going to be paralyzed. The congress has been paralyzed, as you know, during at least the first couple years of the Trump presidency. Particularly, very little legislation passes when you have a divided congress," he said at the seminar.
"Don't expect a whole different political universe because it is not. Still, Democrats will need Republicans to pass any legislation and they have to get the Senate to go along and they have to get Trump to sign it," he added.
What is more worrisome for Roth is difference in strategies Seoul and Washington have put in place to achieve their shared goal of Pyongyang's denuclearization.
Roth noted that South Korea appears to be prioritizing moving quickly to improve cross-border relations and reducing tensions, while the US places a major priority on denuclearization or at least significant progress on denuclearization.
"This difference in strategy could be consequential under a scenario in which there is a lack of progress in ROK-DPRK or US-DPRK relations," he said, referring to the acronyms for South and North Korea's official names, the Republic of Korea and Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"The worst case scenario, which I believe is highly unlikely, but not impossible in the Trump administration, is that the US government could even consider sanctions if the ROK is perceived as ignoring, violating or breaking UN sanctions," he added.
Roth also expressed concerns over the possibility that Trump could "give away the store" should he meet the North Korean leader for a second summit. He raised the possibility that Trump could announce his intention to order a review of US force posture in South Korea.
"I am choosing my words very carefully, meaning I don't think President Trump could go as far as announcing an actual US troop withdrawal in the absence of some major concessions by the North," he said.
"But I can easily envision President Trump saying that he sees US troop withdrawal as the ultimate endgame, hopefully after major progress has been achieved in US-DPRK negotiations," he added. (Yonhap)