by John Feffer
The United States has not yet appointed an ambassador to South Korea. This shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as an insult. A number of other important places still lack U.S. ambassadors: the European Union, Germany, Turkey.
The Trump administration has been notoriously slow in filling these top diplomatic slots. In some cases, as with Germany, Democrats in Congress have been blocking nominees. In other cases, like the proposed ambassador to Barbados who believes in various conspiracy theories, the opposition has been bipartisan.
It is a little strange, however, that Washington lacks a representative in a country on the front line of a potential war. It’s also strange that no ambassador will be present for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
With all the Korea experts in Washington warning that North Korea is using its current charm offensive to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, no one has bothered to point out that the Trump administration has been busy driving its own wedge by not appointing an ambassador.
The truth is, the Trump administration has found it difficult to find someone who can pass its litmus test. First, any potential ambassador must have demonstrated loyalty to Donald Trump himself – that is, they should not have signed any “Never Trump” letters or spoken out against Trump when he was a Republican presidential candidate.
Second, a candidate must show a willingness to support a preemptive military strike against North Korea.
This second requirement is particularly difficult. After all, with only a couple exceptions, anyone who knows anything about Korea thinks that a preemptive military strike is a horrible idea. The potential retaliation against South Korea would produce horrendous casualties, possibly including the U.S. ambassador if he or she were not evacuated in time.
For many months, the leading candidate for ambassador to South Korea was Victor Cha. He is an academic, currently teaching at Georgetown University. Previously, he served in the George W. Bush administration in the National Security Council.
He is a cautious conservative. Before serving in the Bush administration, he gained notoriety with an article in Foreign Affairs on “hawk engagement,” which laid out a rationale for a hardline position against North Korea. But within the Bush administration, he ultimately took a different position. A key supporter of Chris Hill’s overture to North Korea, Cha became an important architect of the Six Party Talks.
During the Obama years, Cha headed up the Korea programming at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a center-right think tank in Washington, DC. He published a few books, including The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future in 2012.
As the presidential primaries began, he didn’t sign any “Never Trump” letters. He didn’t say anything disparaging about Trump.
But it turned out that he couldn’t meet the second requirement for the job. In conversations with the Trump administration, Cha voiced his skepticism about the advisability of a preemptive military strike against North Korea.
In some ways, he has returned to his earlier position of “hawk engagement.” In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he argued that the United States should strengthen its coercive policies toward Pyongyang, including sanctions, increased military transfers to allies in the region, reinforced non-proliferation mechanisms, and, even, continued plans for military options.
But all of this was still not good enough for the Trump administration, which wants to go one step further and attack North Korea first. For his refusal to get in line behind the faction within the administration that favors this first strike, Cha was unceremoniously dumped from the prospect list last month.
The rejection of Victor Cha is a very disturbing sign of the thinking inside the Trump administration.
“I thought the Trump administration was bluffing on a preventive strike,” says Tom Wright, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings. “But the news about Cha no longer being nominated is the type of costly signaling that convinces me I may have been wrong. They are seriously considering it.”
The Pentagon has generally been risk-averse about any military actions on the Korean peninsula. U.S. military analysts are well aware of the potential consequences – for the tens of thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea, the more than 100,000 U.S. civilians, and the millions of South Korea civilians.
But several members of the Trump administration, notably National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, are more enthusiastic about a preemptive “bloody nose” attack on North Korea that would demonstrate U.S. resolve.
As importantly, North Korea believes that the administration is preparing such a strike. It’s what Pyongyang has long insisted, that the United States is an aggressor focused on regime change. Now it can point to more concrete evidence to prove this claim. The likelihood of a war accidentally breaking out because of misperceptions on both sides has perhaps never been higher.
The failure of the Trump administration to nominate an ambassador for South Korea sends another signal to the Korean peninsula. Trump doesn’t think he needs a diplomat in place, even at such a dangerous time. Either he thinks that he can deal with the crisis himself – by talking on the phone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and by tweeting threats at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Or he believes that the U.S. military should take the lead on this issue because, as he said to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the fall, negotiations with North Korea are a waste of time. “Save your energy Rex,” the president tweeted, “we’ll do what has to be done!”
For now, all sides have declared an informal Olympic truce. North Koreans will participate in the Olympics, and there will be numerous opportunities for inter-Korean dialogue. Although he refused to meet with North Korean officials at the Games, Vice President Mike Pence hinted at the possibility of US-North Korea talks.
But as soon as the Games end and the vice president is safely back in Washington, the Trump administration will likely return to its bellicose approach. Without an ambassador in Seoul, the gap between the United States and South Korea will only grow wider – and so will the gap between Washington and Pyongyang. It’s not too late to propose an extension of the Olympic truce, but the United States has to make a solid move in that direction.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in Hankyoreh newspaper.