Why Doesn’t the U.S. have an Ambassador to South Korea?

In 2017, North Korea launched over 15 missile tests while continuing an assault on U.S. regional resolve with a flurry of insults aimed at President Trump and inflammatory diplomatic maneuvers. The UN has taken a progressively hard-line stance towards North Korea, limiting imports to 500,000 barrels/year of refined petroleum and 4 million barrels/year of crude oil on December 22, 2017 via Security Council Resolution 2379. On January 16, 2018 during a meeting with Foreign Ministers representing Canada, South Korea, Japan, and the United Kingdom, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reflected on the “lockstep coordination” that these countries had with one another with regards to the North Korean turmoil, and that all of the allies were working closely together on a “maximum pressure campaign against the DPRK.” Despite this, the U.S. does not yet have a permanent ambassador to South Korea, a close regional ally with clear geographic importance. President Trump has been in office for over a year, and the lack of an ambassador to South Korea poses a threat to the power and influence of the American diplomatic mission in South Korea.

U.S. Ambassadors represent a critical role in diplomacy, for a variety of reasons. The State Department lists their functions to include the following: direct the diplomatic mission, coordinate U.S. efforts in the region, review communications, ensure the security of the diplomatic mission, and perhaps most importantly given the vacancy in South Korea, speak with “one voice” to others regarding U.S. policy. U.S. ambassadors directly represent the President, and serve often in this capacity. The man who is currently in charge of the diplomatic mission in South Korea is Marc Knapper. His title is Chargé d’Affaires, normally the second in command at the embassy. In recent months, the position of ambassador in this particular region has become increasingly important, as 65% of Americans think that North Korean leadership is willing to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S., compared to only 47% in 2013.  An astounding 84% of Americans think that President Trump is willing to use nuclear force against North Korea. Despite the threat of war, the Secretary of State continues to release statements which call for continued dedication to diplomatic efforts. It is clear that the role of U.S. ambassador to South Korea is critical for any diplomatic mission, but even more so given the nature of the North Korean threat.

President Trump has been considering a nomination, but so far, nothing has panned out. The previous ambassador to South Korea was Mark Lippert, a former Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He was appointed by the Obama administration and spent his tenure focused on improving defensive military capacity in the geographic area near North Korea, extending as far as ground-based missile defense systems in Alaska. Upon Mr. Lippert’s departure, Marc Knapper assumed the role of acting ambassador on January 20, 2017. Marc Knapper has served periodically in the embassy since 1993. One of the biggest criticisms of leaving Mr. Knapper as ambassador, besides the fact that the Trump administration already appointed him as the Charge d’Affaires, is his civilian federal rank. This is the structure by which federal employees are categorized, similar and comparable to military ranks. A civilian federal rank that is too low for the job at hand can present a number of issues, not the least of which being possible disrespect to the receiving country. Mr. Knapper does not have the necessary diplomatic leverage that comes with a higher rank. The U.S. encountered this problem during World War II, in which other countries had 5 star military officers, but the highest ranking American officer only had 4 stars. U.S. Army officers were unable to command foreign troops because of their lower ranks, and so the 5 star ranks of General of the Army and Fleet Admiral were created. In diplomacy, the similar situations can occur, causing communications to falter. For example, if there is a multilateral meeting at the ambassador level and the U.S. representative is ranked below his or her counterparts, then U.S. influence in the meeting will suffer. U.S. and South Korean relations have remained fairly status quo thus far, but there is certainly a potential for future dilemmas.

There has so far been only one name seriously tossed around as a potential nominee, but this nomination recently collapsed. On December 16, 2017, news organizations reported that Victor Cha had been selected for the nomination. Victor Cha is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and is a Senior Advisor as well as the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). However, despite his qualifications, Cha was removed from consideration in late January 2018. This is because of what is becoming quite a divisive proposal about North Korea. Some high level government officials are advocating for what is known as a “bloody nose” military strike on North Korea, which is a thus far vague idea about knocking out part of the North Korean nuclear strike arsenal as a sort of ultimatum against continued aggression. Victor Cha reportedly disagrees with a “bloody nose” operation, and seems to be averse to most military action. Although this position aligns with the Secretary of State, it cost him Trump’s nomination.

As enumerated on the State Department website, one of the most important jobs of the ambassador is to serve as the unified voice of American policy at the local level. The State Department chose this as the first job. Across the world, the U.S. has 45 ambassador vacancies. Especially in the South Korean embassy, this can present a real obstacle. The State Department lists 19 subdivisions of the South Korean embassy, ranging from the Joint Military Affairs Group-Korea (JUSMAG-K) to the “Hours of Routine Operations” subdivision. These offices are structured according to the vision of the ambassador, which is supposedly a representation of the President’s vision. With a plethora of clamoring voices right now, it will prove difficult to represent everyone’s desires, especially given the lack of a permanent ambassador. Marc Knapper is only the acting ambassador, so any actions he implements will surely be modified as soon as he is replaced. Not only does this affect the efficiency of the agency he controls, but it can also cause communication problems with the South Korean government. Whenever he interacts with a representative of the South Korean government, his words and assurances bear relatively little concrete trustworthiness, because his entire policy agenda could potentially be thrown out as soon as he no longer holds the position. Anything he says to the South Korean government might not be considered as seriously as a statement by a permanent ambassador, which can cause trust issues and can also cause the South Korean government to pursue their own diplomatic interests without consulting as much with the United States. The Secretary of State and the President are having their own communication issues, as Trump seems to be at least considering a bloody nose strike (administration officials have denied the existence of such a plan, nonetheless, mixed signals have been sent from Washington) whereas the Secretary of State appears reluctant to approach the matter. There are a lot of moving pieces to the issue, but nothing is going to have a substantially positive effect on the U.S. relationship with South Korea.

The U.S. relationship with South Korea is not strained, and it certainly is not unstable, but this relationship cannot be neglected given the importance of the region. The lack of an ambassador indicates that South Korea, and perhaps diplomacy itself, is not very high on the President’s list of priorities. If this is the signal that the President intends to send then this, along with his opposition to the TPP and his criticisms of the KORUS Free Trade Agreement, will indefinitely alter the regional balance of power. Without a permanent ambassador to South Korea, the U.S. creates a host of problems for itself, many of which can be solved by appointing an ambassador.