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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. Department of State announced up to $2.4 million in funding to promote human rights in North Korea this week.
According to the announcement, the funds should go to projects that “support the policy objective to promote human rights, accountability, and access to information in the DPRK.”
The funding announcement comes amid a months-long diplomatic stalemate between Washington and Pyongyang over a range of issues, from the fate of the North’s nuclear weapons program to sanctions relief to the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula.
The two countries have also clashed over human rights issues.
Early in the Trump administration, the president and his administration spoke forcefully about human rights in North Korea.
Trump invited Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean escapee, and the parents of Otto Warmbier — an American college student who was imprisoned in the North and died shortly after his release — to his State of the Union Address in 2018.
“No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” Trump said in the speech.
But after Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un met for the first time and began engaging in diplomacy, the president and his inner circle seem to have held back on talking about human rights in North Korea, at least in public.
In December, when the U.S. chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC) that focused on the DPRK, the Americans reportedly refused to add human rights to the agenda — despite calls from some European allies to include the topic.
That may be a tactic to keep Pyongyang at the negotiating table, though it is unclear if it has been effective. North Korea has been ignoring U.S. attempts to restart talks for months.
The North also expressed anger when the head of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) — the agency that will administer the new human rights funding — called the DPRK a “human rights violator.”
“Such malicious words,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman snapped back, adding that the U.S. official’s comment, made during a tense diplomatic deadlock, was like “pouring oil over burning fire,” according to the DPRK’s official state news agency.
It remains to be seen if Pyongyang will respond to the State Department’s new announcement of human rights funding.
The $2.4 million total also falls far short of the $4 million that Congress had allocated to the State Department for these projects in December. It is unclear why DRL is not using the full funding amount allotted to it.
A State Department spokesperson suggested to NK News that the department could release more of the funds later in the year.
“The $2.4 million funding opportunity does not foreclose future programming opportunities for the balance of the funding appropriated by Congress for DPRK programs,” the spokesperson said.
In March last year, the State Department also offered up to $6 million for similar projects.
The department’s announcement this week lists a range of projects that may be eligible for the new batch of U.S. federal funds.
The department said they should promote “human rights and accountability through the programmatic approach of fostering the free flow of information into, out of and within the DPRK.”
One recent report, published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, described an oppressive system of information control in the DPRK.
“The Kim Jong Un regime continues to crack down on information from the outside world and punish those who attempt to access it,” wrote Martyn Williams, the report’s author.
According to the State Department’s announcement this week, projects worthy of funding should work to solve that problem.
They may include those broadcasting radio signals into the North and “exploring new mechanisms or expanding existing mechanisms for sharing or consuming information and content,” according to the department.
The State Department said it would also fund projects that raise international awareness about human rights conditions in the DPRK.
Suggestions include building a “public online database of prisons and gulags in the DPRK, including a list of political prisoners,” documenting human rights abuses against North Korean citizens, and increasing the amount of information available about human rights abusers inside the country.
According to the announcement, the funding will be split among up to 16 organizations. Between $50,000 and $150,000 are available per project.