Patterns of Impunity

Human Rights in North Korea and the Role of the U.S. Special Envoy

Robert R. King
Release Date: April 6, 2021

As the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights from 2009 to 2017, Ambassador Robert R. King led efforts to ensure that human rights were an integral part of U.S. policy with North Korea. In this book, he traces U.S. involvement and interest in North Korean human rights, from the adoption of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004—legislation which King himself was involved in and which called for the creation of the special envoy position to his— own negotiations with North Korean diplomats over humanitarian assistance, discussions that would ultimately end because of the death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un’s ascension as Supreme Leader, as well as continued nuclear and missile testing.

Beyond an in-depth overview of his time as special envoy, Ambassador King provides insights into the United Nations’ role in addressing the North Korean human rights crisis, including the UN Human Rights Council’s creation of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK in 2013–14, and discussions in the Security Council on North Korea human rights.

King explores subjects such as the obstacles to getting outside information to citizens of one of the most isolated countries in the world; the welfare of DPRK defectors, and how China has both abetted North Korea by returning refugees and enabled the problem of human trafficking; the detaining of U.S. citizens in North Korea and efforts to free them, including King’s escorting U.S. citizen Eddie Jun back from Pyongyang in 2011; and the challenges of providing humanitarian assistance to a country with no formal relations with the United States and where separating human rights from politics is virtually impossible.


Robert R. “Bob” King served as United States special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, an ambassadorial ranked position. Prior to becoming the special envoy, King served as chief of staff to congressman Tom Lantos for 24 years and Democratic Staff Director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (2001–09).