Lack of Nominees Hampers Trump’s North Korea Policy

The administration has yet to name an ambassador to South Korea or fill key Asia posts at the Pentagon and State Department.

The South Korean army's K-55 self-propelled howitzers move during a military exercise in Paju, near the border with North Korea, on Monday.
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Sept. 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

As tensions continue to rise with North Korea, President Trump has yet to provide nominees for several important positions that would be involved in forming the United States’s policy for the region. That delay is increasingly worrying lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

There are three notable posts requiring Senate approval that handle North Korea-related issues—the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and the assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs—that have gone unfilled since Trump took office more than seven months ago. And senators who serve on the committees that would begin the confirmation process for these nominees don’t have a clear sense of when those appointments might occur.

“When you’re trying to look at a coordinated strategy that could avoid military conflict, you need to have all your players in place,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, which confirms State Department nominees. “I have not seen any coordinated effort to make sure that they have a team in place.”

In the case of the three open positions that deal with North Korea, career diplomats have filled in temporarily as the agencies await official selections from the White House. Marc Knapper is heading the U.S. embassy in South Korea, Susan Thornton is the acting assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and David Helvey is in the role of acting assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

All three are unquestionably qualified to assume these roles for the time being. But they are restrained in ways that permanent appointees are not. Michael Fuchs, who served in the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Obama, said it’s important for Trump to put his own people in place because it sends a message to the agencies and to the rest of the world that he trusts them to carry out the administration’s policies.

“If they don’t fundamentally have the relationships and the inherent backing of their bosses, it becomes much more difficult for them to speak authoritatively on behalf of the U.S. government and knowing what they’re saying will actually be implemented and will not be changed next week or next month,” Fuchs said. “So it severely limits what these officials are likely comfortable actually talking to foreign counterparts about.”

The absence of nominees for these positions is just one element of the White House’s broader struggle to develop a comprehensive and cohesive North Korea strategy.

The Trump administration has sent mixed messages in the wake of North Korea’s latest missile and nuclear tests. After Trump insisted last week that “talking is not the answer,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said, “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions.” Trump clarified Wednesday that military action was not his “first choice.” Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats held separate briefings with the House and Senate on North Korea and Afghanistan Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Trump has also made comments that could weaken the United States’s decades-long alliance with South Korea. He threatened to withdraw from a free trade agreement with the country and criticized its leaders’ “talk of appeasement with North Korea.”

“I think a smart ambassador could probably have kept the White House from making some missteps on this,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. “There’s great career people we have who’ve been in South Korea a lot, so it’s not going to be hard to find somebody good. I don’t know why they’re waiting.”

The administration’s slow pace on nominations isn’t limited to positions concerning North Korea. According to a database compiled by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post, Trump has yet to appoint individuals for 85 of the 147 key Senate-confirmable positions at the State Department. At the Defense Department, 23 of 53 of jobs still need a nominee.

“Just in general, we’ve got a lot of nominations that need to be brought forth. We’ve got situations around the world where issues need to be dealt with, and hopefully more are going to be forthcoming,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, echoed Corker, saying senators are “anxious to get some of these positions filled.” Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which takes up Pentagon nominees, has been sounding the alarm on the White House’s inaction on this front for months. But McCain, a recent target of Trump’s ire, said Wednesday that he hasn’t spoken directly with the president about nominees or any other matter since the Syria missile strike in April.

“I think they can do without my comments,” McCain said.

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