We have already written more than once on the US president’s views on the Korean question: outlining the general approach, summarizing the arguments, emphasizing what a difficult choice he is faced with and looking at how an attempt at dialogue, initiated, it appears, by Joseph Yun, the United States’ Special Representative for North Korea Policy, failed because the necessary preconditions were not met.
The difficulty of the choice has resulted in a large number of different opinions. The USA is prepared to talk with the DPRK if the latter completely abandons its nuclear program before the talks begin. In these circumstances, Donald Trump has assured Moon Jae-in that the USA will never start a war with North Korea without South Korea’s agreement, even though he has ambiguously hinted at the possibility of doing so if sanctions fail.
The lack of a clear policy is frequently blamed on the fact that there is no experienced North Korea specialist in the Trump Administration. Most academics do not like the new president and do not want to advise him – they would rather just wait and see him get himself in a mess that he can’t get out of. Non specialist political experts keep repeating, year after year, that the regime is facing imminent collapse. It is also well known that Donald Trump does not particularly trust the US Intelligence Service and Department of State.
So, let us have a look at some recent rumors and resignations. First, the decision not to appoint the political analyst Victor Cha, who is well known as a harsh critic of Pyongyang, as ambassador to South Korea. Victor Cha is an ethnic Korean and a Protestant, who was the Director for Asian Affairs in the White House’s National Security Council during George W. Bush’s administration, and was part of the US delegation for the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear problem. He currently teaches at Georgetown University and works as an advisor for CSIS (the Center for Strategic and International Studies).
His opinions are typical of those held by Pyongyang’s opponents – he wrote in 2011 that the North Korean regime was nearing its end, and after the death of Kim Jong-il the DPRK would last only a few weeks, or at most months, before it had its own version of an “Arab Spring”. And his book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future was seen, even in the USA, as representing an extreme and politically motivated view, which verged on a deliberate refusal to understand the situation in the DPRK.
The decision not to appoint Victor Cha was, in effect, taken as long ago as August 2017. On December 10 a request for his agrément was sent, but the Washington Post, citing the White House, reported that the appointment had been withdrawn. That newspaper blamed differences of opinion, on at least two points, between Victor Cha and the Trump Administration. Firstly, Victor Cha expressed concern about the Trump Administration’s intention to withdraw from a trade agreement with Seoul which the USA did not benefit from.
Secondly, he spoke out against a so-called “bloody nose” strike – a precision attack on the DPRK’s nuclear facilities and other strategic targets, avoiding any civilian casualties (or keeping them to a minimum). Presumably such a strike would not trigger a full-scale war – Kim jong-un is not a mindless bloody tyrant, after all – and North Korea would accept the blow to its pride and not respond to an attack on a limited scale by triggering a nuclear war. If that assumption is correct then it is possible to play with North Korea’s patience, and then, after a series of strikes, convince Pyongyang of its vulnerability and persuade it make concessions, including giving up its nuclear weapons.
However, according to media reports, in December 2017 Victor Cha “expressed concern about a plan to warn Pyongyang with a narrow rocket strike”, and already, after his resignation, he published an article warning about the grave risks of such an attack and arguing that it would solve nothing and would only push the regime into taking more extreme steps.
As a result the US diplomatic embassy in South Korea is currently headed by a temporary appointee, Mark Napper, and experts have expressed concern about how the lack of an ambassador may disrupt the continuity of communications between Seoul and Washington, even though the US administration has promised to find a new candidate without delay.
And then the next resignation: the retirement “for personal reasons” of Joseph Yun. Born in South Korea, as a child he immigrated with his parents to the USA at an early age and started his diplomatic career in 1985. During his career he has served as the military attaché to the US embassy in Seoul, the US ambassador in Malaysia, and, most recently, a US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and, at the same time, Special representative for North Korea policy. In the latter capacity, among other achievements, he arranged the release of the American student Otto Warmbier and was considered Washington’s main policy former ideologue in its relations with Pyongyang.
Rex Tillerson accepted Joseph Yun’s resignation with regret, and Heather Nauert, the spokesperson for the US Department of State, announced that the US’s special representative for North Korean policy will, as before, be on the staff of the Department for East Asia and Pacific Affairs. However, experts in both South Korea and Russia have noted that Joseph Yun was a supporter of any dialogue, even at the most superficial level, with Pyongyang, and his departure increases the risk of conflict. According to a number of sources, Mr. Yun was the only more-or-less high-profile state official with whom Moscow was able to find points of agreement. “We are aware, and he himself made no secret of this, that he was pretty much on his own, surrounded by “hawks” in the US administration, but his presence gave us hope that the calls for dialogue might be heard. It is a pity he has gone. It is to be expected that the USA’s policy towards Pyongyang will become even more aggressive and intransigent.”
Heather Nauert’s comment on the resignation was as follows: “We are sorry to see him retire, but our diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea will continue based on our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the DPRK.” In theory, that could mean that Joseph Yun, unlike Heather Nauert and the rest of the gang, did not see the “Olympic thaw” as a gesture of despair and a sign that the regime was near collapse, nor did he adhere to the idea that the best response to the DPRK’s outstretched hand is to tighten the pressure so that North Korea will finally collapse.
And, as South Korean media have pointed out, he is not the only experienced American diplomat to resign over a difference of opinion with the Trump administration. Recently, Tom Shannon, the U.S. State Department’s third-ranking official, announced that he was stepping down. Michael Ratney, the US Special Envoy for Syria, has made a similar decision. And if reports from the generally anti-Trump media are to be believed, then Donald Trump has asked the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to dismiss his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter, Ivanka. Those last reports are probably false, but the question of who is now advising Donald Trump is becoming more and more pressing. For example, it is clear that Peter Navarro, who is well-known for his strongly anti-Chinese views, has an influence on the USA’s policies towards China. One of his books is called Death by China: How America Lost Its Manufacturing Base.
Of course, Donald Trump is not a person who relies on other peoples’ opinions when he makes decisions, but his personal experience as a businessman and politician have not given him with the high level of judgement required to understand the situation in North East Asia. We have already written about some of the problems this has caused, and, given the “difficult choice” he is faced with, all he can do at the moment is hope that the “maximum pressure” approach will work, or threaten the world with “Plan B”. And that means that, following Joseph Yun’s resignation, a successful resolution to the Korean problem has become rather less likely.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“