Seoul envoy disappointed Biden yet to appoint N.Korea rights counterpart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - South Korea's ambassador on North Korean human rights expressed disappointment on Thursday that Joe Biden's administration had yet to appoint an envoy for the issue, despite the U.S. leader's vow to put rights at the center of his foreign policy.

Lee Shin-wha was named to her post in South Korea in July after President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May.

The position had been vacant for five years while the previous South Korean government sought to engage with North Korea to try to persuade it to give up its nuclear and missile programs, a process the Biden administration has tried but failed to revive.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a congressional hearing in June last year the Biden administration was determined to appoint a North Korea rights envoy, but that he was not able to offer a timeline.

Lee told a seminar organized by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies she had met with a senior White House adviser in Washington on Wednesday and came away "a bit pessimistic (rather) than optimistic when it comes to appointing a special envoy".

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it currently had no updates to offer on the issue.

"By appointing a special envoy, you can give a clear message to North Korea, that human rights matters to the U.S. foreign policy," Lee said.

"When we observed that President Biden became president, we were very excited about it, because we value freedom and also human rights and democracy. But unfortunately, we haven't seen any specific North Korea (human rights) policy of his yet."

Lee said it was important to rally international support to press North Korea on rights and a U.S. appointment could influence the European Union to follow suit when it was preoccupied with Ukraine and China and Russia were blocking efforts at the United Nations.

She argued that with efforts to persuade North Korea to return to denuclearization talks not going anywhere, emphasizing rights could give future leverage over Pyongyang.

Lee said that if it wasn't possible to appoint a new envoy quickly, Biden should at least mention rights when highlighting the North Korean security threat.

"That will give just a candlelight of hope to North Korean people who suffer a lot," she said.

Biden vowed repeatedly after taking office that human rights would be at the center of his foreign policy, but rights advocates say the issue has several times been shunted aside in favor of national security priorities.

Washington has sharply condemned North Korea's repeated and escalating missile launches this year while at the same time urging it to return to negotiations.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)