Just as the rumblings of possible US-North Korea talks are becoming deafening, the US has lost one of its most valuable negotiators. On March 2nd, Joseph Yun, the US special representative for North Korea policy will retire, leaving the US to pursue diplomatic efforts without one of its most experienced career diplomats.
Yun was an integral part of US-DPRK diplomacy. He worked tirelessly to secure the release of Otto Warmbier last year, the student who had been arrested by the North Korean authorities, travelling to Pyongyang to conduct the negotiations.
Yun personally brought the student home on a medical evacuation flight out of Pyongyang. 22-year-old Warmbier returned to the US in a coma and died six days after his arrival.
Joseph Yun was also dealing with the cases of three other American citizens detained by DPRK authorities. When he travelled to Pyongyang last June, he spoke with all three but had been unable to negotiate their release.
He was the principal go-between between Pyongyang and Washington, meeting regularly with North Korean diplomats Pak Song Il and Choe Son Hui. Through Choe, Yun had a channel to the North Korean leadership and Kim Jong Un himself. Yun’s involvement in any upcoming talks between the two countries would have been vital.
The circumstances surrounding his departure at such a pivotal moment in US-DPRK relations reveal the extent of the crisis within the US State Department. His departure also indicates an underlying reluctance from the Trump administration to fully explore diplomatic solutions to the escalating North Korea crisis.
Several career diplomats have expressed their frustration at their lack of voice within the Trump administration. Thomas A. Shannon Jr. left his post last month as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs after 35 years of service.
Victor Cha, an expert on North Korea who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council and was a possible candidate to fill the currently vacant role of ambassador to South Korea, was dropped after he publicly rejected the idea of a pre-emptive strike on the DPRK.
There is a trend among the exodus from Trump’s State Department. Victor Cha was adamantly opposed to a pre-emptive strike. Yun was also a vocal proponent of a peaceful solution to North Korean aggression through diplomatic channels.
The exodus begs the question; does Trump want to engage diplomatically with North Korea? If he did, he would have appointed an ambassador to South Korea by now.
Publicly he has also indicated that he is more prepared to seek a solution through military action than around a negotiating table. Last October, when Rex Tillerson reached out to Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership for discussion, Trump told Tillerson he was “wasting his time”.
Again, when Tillerson stated in January that he was willing to begin talks with North Korea without any preconditions, the White House publicly corrected him and shot down the idea in the press.
It appears that while Trump maintains all options are on the table, he is willing to publicly promote his promise of “fire and fury” on North Korea but is reluctant to be seen actively pursuing talks his North Korean counterpart.
Even with Yun’s departure, the Trump administration is not void of diplomatic experts that can conduct meaningful negotiations with the North Koreans, and diplomatic solutions are by no means off the table, but his choice of who will replace Yun will be revealing.
He has Allison Hooker. She was appointed Korea director on the National Security Council in 2014 under President Obama and was in Pyeongchang for the Olympics closing ceremony with Ivanka Trump.
He also has current State Department Korea Desk Director Mark Lambert. He is a likeable and charismatic diplomat who has a nuanced ability to understand the bigger picture in any diplomatic negotiations. He would be an able candidate to succeed Yun.
There are still a number of more than capable diplomats with the required experience to replace Yun. However, if Trump overlooks them and appoints yet more inexperienced staffers, more determined to build Tillerson’s empire than advise on policy, he will find himself woefully ill-equipped going into any talks.
At this pressing time, if Trump wants to seriously engage with the DPRK, he needs career diplomats around him with experience of dealing with this unpredictable regime. Trump can fumble his way through foreign policy with ill-thought-out tweets but to be effective in global diplomacy he needs expertise and experience around him.