Image: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), cropped
Over a year into Donald Trump’s bizarre Presidency, one of the many things he somehow hasn’t quite gotten around to doing yet is to appoint a new ambassador to South Korea.
A year ago, Trump moved faster. Among his first acts was to sack every single ambassador who was a political appointee of his predecessor. All were told to quit before his inauguration.
So Mark Lippert – a close friend of Barack Obama, who had no Korea background but did a fine job in Seoul – was out on his ear. Months passed. Trump picked new envoys to China and Japan, but not to South Korea. Koreans, South and North alike, notice such things.
Not that Seoul is alone in this glaring absence. CNN’s Will Ripley recently posted a map showing all nations similarly still left bereft. There are a lot, including other key U.S. allies.
To be fair, Congress is blocking some nominees. Not here. Actually, for a while now wheels had been in motion. A good candidate was found, the ROK approved; it had all seemed done and dusted. Then suddenly it wasn’t. Something extraordinary and alarming just happened.
We’d known for months – first as rumor, but latterly pretty much confirmed – that Dr. Victor Cha was in line to succeed Mark Lippert. His should be a familiar name to NK News readers – he was even interviewed here in July 2016.
This choice met with near-universal approval – barring a sour piece of scuttlebutt in the Korea Times. Certainly, Cha is a hawk, which offends some folks. Yet he also favors dialogue, having coined the interesting concept “hawk engagement”. And he practices what he preaches, as in a 2005 book debating North Korea strategy co-written with a more liberal scholar, David Kang.
Since obviously Trump wouldn’t be sending a dove to Seoul, there was widespread relief that at least he had picked a respected scholar of Korea who also has government experience. For detail, read Cha’s resumes at the two institutions where he works: Georgetown University in Washington, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) where he has held the Korea Chair since its creation in 2009.
This bona fide hawk wasn’t hawkish enough for this administration
On the government front, during 2004-07 Cha served in George W Bush’s White House as director for Asian affairs (including Korea and much more) on the National Security Council (NSC), and deputy head of delegation at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing. So he has negotiated not only with but actually in Pyongyang – as he vividly recounts at the start of his most recent and probably his best-known book, “The Impossible State.”
As for scholarship, besides all the books let me flag up two further contributions out of many. With David Kang, Cha directed a project on planning for Korean unification at CSIS during 2010-14 which produced some very interesting research papers. More recently, in 2016 CSIS launched a new website, Beyond Parallel, which is proving a very useful public resource.
I could go on. But alas, Victor Cha’s nomination couldn’t and didn’t. As the Washington Postreported on January 30, followed by other media, Cha is no longer in the running. How come?
NO BLOODY NOSE
Cha himself is not talking (or not directly; read on). But it appears that this bona fide hawk wasn’t hawkish enough for this administration. Or you might say, not insanely reckless enough.
There were two major sticking points.
First, as we know from a powerful op-ed he published just as Trump was about to give his State of the Union (SOTU) Address, Cha has joined the long list of experienced Korea policy hands warning Trump that any idea of a limited pre-emptive strike on North Korean nuclear and/or missile sites is or should be a non-starter, which risks the catastrophe of all-out war on and around the peninsula. This is a must-read.
That being Cha’s considered expert view, he duly conveyed it to the White House – perhaps forcefully. Relatedly, by some accounts he refused to take responsibility for evacuating U.S. citizens – numbering some 230,000 – from South Korea ahead of any such strike in the North.
But as his op-ed states, evacuation is a non-starter. The “bloody nose” option would inevitably put everyone resident in South Korea at risk. Cha doesn’t mince words, so let me quote him:
“To be clear: The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.”
Cha is absolutely right, so Trump’s discarding of him is very bad news. It means that despite all the evidence presented of the appalling risks, the ‘bloody nose’ option really is still being canvassed in the White House as a serious option. It really actually might happen.
That is jolting. Trump and his crew say so many contradictory things on North Korea, some of them soothing, that it’s tempting to grasp at straws and assume they really wouldn’t be so reckless.
Joseph Yun, U.S. Special Representative for DPRK policy, insisted on February 1 that the U.S. is not close to a military option. Let’s hope so. But private comments from Washington suggest that, while Yun is sincere, he simply wouldn’t be in the loop for any such decision.
Despite all the evidence presented of the appalling risks, the ‘bloody nose’ option really is still being canvassed in the White House
One variant of the optimistic view is that the President’s hot-headedness is held in check by the sensible military types he has appointed, who know what war is really like and would stop him going there.
Better shed that illusion too. In another new must-read article in the Atlantic, Mira Rapp-Hooper firmly names Trump’s National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster as the main man hawking (you might say) the “bloody nose” option. It really is a mad and bad idea. But will anyone in the White House listen?
On a different policy front, Victor Cha also apparently also opposed Trump’s efforts to tear up, or revise, the KORUS bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) that the U.S. and South Korea signed in 2007 and finally implemented in 2012. On this I’m not aware if Cha has spoken publicly. But I’d expect him to share the expert consensus: that KORUS is actually a good deal, and (as also with NAFTA) being confrontational on such matters is not a good way to treat allies.
To sum up. Many more months will pass with no U.S. ambassador in post in Seoul – and who will Trump pick now? Who will he find who shares his reckless readiness to ward off a hypothetical danger (North Korean nukes targeted on the U.S.) by unleashing an all too real regional and global catastrophe?
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.