Skip to navigationSkip to content

The US is losing its point-man on North Korea and still has no ambassador in Seoul

In this April 25, 2017, file photo, U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy Joseph Yun speaks in Tokyo. It took months of “quiet diplomacy,” a change in U.S. presidents and an American diplomat’s extraordinary, secret visit to Pyongyang to bring Otto Warmbier home. Yun was a household name to almost no one before Warmbier’s return to Ohio on June 14, yet he joins an exceedingly short list of U.S. officials to set foot in furtive North Korea in recent years. The last such visit is believed to have been in November 2014, when former National Intelligence Director James Clapper brought home two other jailed Americans.
Toru Yamanaka/Pool Photo via AP
Important role.
By Steve Mollman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In an interview with Fox News last November, Donald Trump addressed a question about the many unfilled positions in the US State Department. ”Let me tell you, the one that matters is me,” he said. “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”

That did not bode well for highly experienced diplomats like Joseph Yun, who announced his retirement today (Feb. 27). Yun has been the US’s point-man on North Korea in recent years, serving as special representative to the isolated country and deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan. He has over three decades of diplomatic experience. His last day is Friday.

While Yun said his departure was for personal reasons, the timing of his announcement is hard to ignore. Yun has been pushing for more dialogue with North Korea, which has recently indicated its willingness to hold talks with the US, but without preconditions. The Trump administration, for its part, has insisted that any talks with Pyongyang must have nuclear disarmament as the end goal. South Korean president Moon Jae-in suggested yesterday that the US ”needs to lower its bar for dialogue, and the North, too, must show its willingness to denuclearize.”

Yun’s departure will fuel speculation that the Trump administration is seriously considering military action against North Korea. It follows another highly respected North Korea expert, Victor Cha, George W. Bush’s top North Korea representative, not becoming, to the surprise of many, the US ambassador to South Korea last month. Though he seemed the perfect candidate and was the clear front-runner, Cha told the administration he disliked the idea of a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea—and found himself out of the running. He then wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post explaining why such a move would be against US interests (paywall).

Yun’s abrupt departure, coupled with Cha’s rejection, highlights an alarming lack of Korea expertise in the Trump administration, at a crucial time when seasoned voices are particularly needed.

But as Trump made clear in November, in his mind there’s only one voice that really matters.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.