Desperate to Save Diplomacy, White House Blocks U.N. Meeting on North Korean Atrocities

As tensions rise between Washington and Pyongyang, Trump tries to avert a complete breakdown in relations.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on June 30.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on June 30. Cheong Wa Dae Photographic Journalists Group

The White House has killed off plans to convene a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to spotlight atrocities by North Korea, according to several diplomatic sources.

The move signaled a desire by U.S. President Donald Trump to salvage a faltering two-year diplomatic effort to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and try to strike a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

The diplomatic retreat at the U.N. comes at a time when tensions are rising between the United States and North Korea, which has resumed testing on its medium-range missiles in recent weeks. Earlier this month, a senior North Korean official threatened to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the United States, a remark that stirred concern that Pyongyang planned to escalate the confrontation with Washington.

On Sunday, Pyongyang announced it had conducted a “very important test” at one of its missile sites, fueling concerns among experts and U.S. officials that the test could be for an engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile or satellite launcher. Such a launch could derail relations between Trump and Kim and fuel new tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim and his surrogates have in the past heaped praise on Trump after high-profile summits between the U.S. and North Korean leaders, but in recent days they reverted to a sharp war of words, precipitating worsening relations between the two countries. Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s infamous former spy chief and negotiator who traveled to Washington to meet Trump twice last year, called Trump a “heedless and erratic old man” on Monday. He vowed that North Korea would not cave to U.S. pressure to give up its nuclear programs.

The United States has labored for years to harness the U.N. Security Council’s support in holding the North Korean regime accountable for mass atrocities at home. That effort got a boost with the 2014 publication of a landmark report on North Korean abuses by the U.N. commission of inquiry into human rights abuses. In December 2014, the Obama administration spearheaded the convening of an annual meeting, scheduled on Human Rights Day, to draw attention to such abuses in North Korea. The Trump administration supported a council meeting on North Korea’s human rights record in 2017 but did not in 2018, citing what it said was a lack of support in the council.

Under U.N. rules, nine of the Security Council’s 15 members are required to schedule a meeting. U.N. diplomatic sources say that the United States had urged Germany to seek signatures on a letter requesting the meeting. Eight council members agreed to sign the letter, but it was never sent out, because the United States decided in the end not to sign it.

“Once again, the U.S. has prevented the U.N. Security Council from scrutinizing North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, apparently because of President Trump’s special relationship with Kim Jong Un,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch.

“By blocking this meeting, which was set to go ahead on Human Rights Day tomorrow, the Trump administration is sending a message to Kim that the U.S. no long considers arbitrary detention, starvation, torture, summary executions, sexual violence and other crimes again the North Korean people a priority,” Charbonneau added. “North Korea and many other abusive governments can now rest assured that they have little to fear from the Trump administration when it comes to human rights.”

In response to a request for comment, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. still plans to press for a council meeting on North Korea this week, but did not say human rights would be discussed. A council diplomat said a meeting focused on the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula would take place on Wednesday at 3 P.M.

“In light of recent events on the Korean Peninsula and the President’s Dec. 5 meeting with the Permanent Representatives to the UN Security Council, the State Department is instructing USUN [the U.S. mission to the United Nations] to propose to have the UN Security Council discussion on North Korea this week include a comprehensive update on recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, including recent missile launches and the possibility of an escalatory DPRK provocation,” the official said.

Last week, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Kim Song, wrote in a letter to the council that a meeting on his country’s human rights record would constitute a “serious provocation” and would be met with a strong response. Such a meeting, he added, “will lead to undermining rather than helping reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and resolution of the nuclear issue.”

On Friday, Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, hinted that such a meeting might not take place, telling reporters “we have not made a decision on whether or not there’s a Dec. 10 meeting.”

Trump has reached out to the North Korean leader via Twitter in an attempt to dial down the diplomatic tensions. “Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer