Victor Cha has been dropped as the U.S.’s nominee to be ambassador to South Korea, a source independently confirmed to NK News on Tuesday evening EST.
The decision not to appoint Cha, a former National Security Council (NSC) senior director under the George W. Bush administration, comes as a surprise to many: the U.S. government had already obtained South Korea’s official agreement – known in diplomacy as agrément – to appoint him ambassador to Seoul roughly a month ago.
Rumors that Cha, currently employed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as a Senior Adviser and inaugural Korea Chair holder, would be appointed as the Trump administration’s first ambassador to South Korea first emerged in June last year.
Reuters then reported in August that he had been confirmed to the position, without saying when precisely he would be officially appointed.
The news that Cha will not be appointed comes just over a year since the departure of Mark Lippert, the Obama administration’s last appointee, and means that ambassadorial duties in Seoul will continue to be conducted by Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Marc Knapper.
It represents the U.S. embassy in South Korea’s longest time without an ambassador in decades.
Some 60 ambassador roles remain to be filled worldwide, as of January 12, according to the Department of State, though the Senate confirmed nomination picks for ambassadors to China and Japan – two other principal stakeholders on the North Korea issue – by July last year.
A report in the Washington Post earlier on Tuesday, citing unnamed sources, said Cha would not be appointed due to disagreements with National Security Council officials over the administration’s consideration of limited strikes on the DPRK – the so-called “bloody nose” strategy – as well as plans to revise the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the South.
In an op-ed for the newspaper published on Tuesday evening, Cha confirmed that he was no longer under consideration for a position in the administration and reiterated his opposition to military action against Pyongyang.
“…the answer is not, as some Trump administration officials have suggested, a preventive military strike,” he wrote, warning such a move could risk “escalating into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.”
One expert on South Korea-U.S. diplomacy told NK News that it was surprising that it had taken so long for the ideological differences between the White House and Cha to emerge.
“If these differences on pretty basic Korea policy mattered so much, why didn’t the administration find those out months ago and pursue other candidates?” Mintaro Oba, a former Korea Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State, said. “Clearly there’s a lot we still don’t know about their process — or lack thereof.”
The news, too, that Cha’s disagreement with the White House lay in his opposition to military action against the North will also likely raise concerns in both U.S. policymaking circles and in South Korea.
“If true, it suggests there’s a camp in the administration that’s serious about the idea,” Oba said. “If false, it means whoever leaked it sees value in publicly hinting that the administration favors a “bloody nose” option, which is also concerning.”
Earlier this month, an official from South Korea’s ministry of foreign affairs (MOFA) told NK News that the appointment of Cha as ambassador to South Korea was nothing more than a “rumor” and would not confirm reports.
Chad O’Carroll contributed reporting
Featured Image: Ha-young Choi
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