US' top North Korea diplomat announces surprise retirement

The US State Department's top diplomat in charge of North...

Posted: Feb 27, 2018 10:53 AM
Updated: Feb 27, 2018 10:53 AM

The US State Department's top diplomat in charge of North Korea policy is retiring at the end of the week.

Joseph Yun, who is in his early 60s, told CNN Tuesday: "It was completely my decision to retire at this time." He said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accepted his resignation "with regret."

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Yun, who joined the Foreign Service in 1985 decided to leave for personal reasons.

"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 (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) until it agrees to begin credible talks toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula," Nauert said.

Yun's abrupt departure raises questions and adds to uncertainty over US President Donald Trump's North Korea policy as ally South Korea engages in talks with the North for the first time in years. The veteran diplomat had a reputation as a proponent of dialogue when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

It had been Yun's job to help spearhead diplomatic efforts to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions during a year of heightened tensions which appeared to ease with North Korea's participation in the Winter Games.

"I think this is a huge loss for the US government at a critical moment," Abraham Denmark, the director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Denmark worked closely with Yun while the former served as the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia during the Obama administration.

"He was a great advocate for dialogue and for diplomacy, and I think it's unfortunate that his voice will no longer be in the conversation inside the US government," Denmark said.

Yun's retirement came as a surprise to many. He was in South Korea and Japan earlier this month to speak with senior government officials from both countries about North Korea issues.

While in Tokyo, Yun said during a rare press conference that he did not believe the US was close to using a military option, though it remained on the table.

"Our policy is based on putting pressure as well as leaving the door open for a dialogue," he said. "I think everyone wants to give diplomacy a good run."

Olympic diplomacy

A high-level North Korean delegation in South Korea for the Winter Games told officials there Sunday that the doors were open for dialogue with the US. The US has said it is willing to hold talks but intends to maintain a pressure campaign on Pyongyang to denuclearize.

Since his appointment as the US special representative for North Korea policy by the Obama administration in October 2016, Yun has been a key player in implementing US strategy and dealing with the limited bilateral relations maintained by the two countries.

US-North Korea relations became increasingly fraught in 2017 when Pyongyang tested long-range missiles it said could reach the US mainland and Washington spearheaded punitive sanctions against the Kim Jong Un regime.

Yun was also instrumental in securing the release of Otto Warmbier, an American college student detained in North Korea for more than a year. Yun and a medical team went to North Korea to pick him up last June.

Warmbier returned to the United States with significant brain damage and died just days later.

Questions

Yun's retirement raises further doubts over the Trump administration's North Korea policy and will likely fuel concerns that the State Department lacks the manpower and expertise to handle the complex negotiations regarding Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Not only is the State Department dealing with an exodus of career diplomats, top posts that deal with North Korea affairs also remain unfilled.

The Senate has yet to confirm Susan Thornton as the chief diplomat for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, though she has been serving in the role in an acting capacity since March 2017. She was officially nominated in January.

And the White House hasn't yet appointed an ambassador to South Korea. In January sources told CNN the long-rumored candidate, Victor Cha, would no longer be nominated. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Cha expressed opposition to the White House's consideration of limited military action in North Korea.

"This is the time where we need diplomats and Victor Cha is not there, Joseph Yun after Friday is not there," said Denmark. "There are still several terrific diplomats in place, but we need their voices to be prominent."

It's not clear to what extent President Trump is committed to diplomatic efforts to peacefully solve the North Korea nuclear crisis.

At a news conference Friday, Trump said if "if we can make a deal, it would be a great thing and if we can't, something will have to happen."

However, in October, the President appeared to dismiss the State Department's diplomatic efforts when he tweeted that Secretary Tillerson was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"Regardless of what (Yun's) reasons are, it is very clear that this administration and in particular the White House does not prioritize diplomacy in foreign policy in writ large and on North Korea in particular," said Michael Fuchs, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department who worked directly with Yun.

"What really is concerning is the language that we've been hearing out of National Security Adviser (H.R.) McMaster and President Trump and others at the White House about the possibility of military action."

Yun has traveled the globe tackling North Korean issues, traveling everywhere from Southeast Asia to Russia. His former colleagues describe him as thoughtful, knowledgeable, prepared and funny -- the consummate diplomat.

"Without a doubt, this is a huge loss for the State Department and our policy on North Korea," said Fuchs.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 171398

Reported Deaths: 2446
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah34320566
Washington23060229
Marion19838299
Clackamas14975202
Lane11295144
Jackson9709126
Umatilla792683
Deschutes679372
Linn403962
Yamhill403974
Malheur342158
Polk336351
Klamath329257
Douglas300865
Josephine298162
Benton267318
Jefferson204832
Coos194731
Columbia150525
Union140423
Lincoln128220
Wasco126428
Hood River110729
Morrow107115
Clatsop8768
Crook84619
Baker81213
Curry5829
Tillamook5692
Lake4127
Grant3464
Harney3036
Wallowa1565
Sherman560
Gilliam551
Wheeler251
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 3706629

Reported Deaths: 60547
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles122662723505
Riverside2968014504
San Bernardino2939254493
San Diego2737083623
Orange2684144849
Santa Clara1164362002
Kern1074341306
Sacramento1005871644
Fresno1002771633
Alameda848171447
Ventura80112990
San Joaquin711781334
Contra Costa66567777
Stanislaus600831020
Tulare49300824
Monterey43209348
San Mateo40920556
San Francisco35841506
Santa Barbara33736444
Solano31702238
Merced31105449
Sonoma29573311
Imperial27851717
Kings22723245
Placer21600281
San Luis Obispo20827256
Madera16174239
Santa Cruz15432203
Marin13815224
Yolo13510199
Shasta11570214
Butte11488193
El Dorado9662108
Napa961880
Sutter9245106
Yuba608343
San Benito594262
Lassen566624
Tehama539356
Nevada441875
Tuolumne405864
Mendocino397747
Amador360746
Humboldt356036
Lake338043
Glenn234925
Colusa218816
Calaveras204551
Siskiyou190920
Inyo141638
Mono12724
Del Norte12637
Plumas6886
Modoc4874
Mariposa4177
Trinity3985
Sierra1080
Alpine880
Unassigned500
Medford
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 37°
Brookings
Clear
56° wxIcon
Hi: 68° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 56°
Medford
Partly Cloudy
37° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 37°
Medford
Partly Cloudy
37° wxIcon
Hi: 69° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 37°
Klamath Falls
Clear
31° wxIcon
Hi: 55° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 24°
Mostly sunny and warmer Wednesday
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events