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South Korea ambassador nominee stalled in Senate

South Korea ambassador nominee stalled in Senate

President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to South Korea is the latest State Department nominee to see his confirmation stalled by secret Senate holds.

Sung Kim, the administration’s special envoy to the (defunct) six party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, was nominated to replace Kathleen Stephens as the U.S. envoy to Seoul last month. We’ve confirmed with three senior Senate aides that there is at least one hold on Kim’s nomination.  We don’t know which senator has placed the hold, but we’re told that it relates to GOP concerns that the Obama administration is seeking a path toward reengagement with Pyongyang and is also considering providing food aid to North Korea. Special Representative Stephen Bosworth and Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Robert King led the delegation of U.S. officials who met with top North Korean leaders in New York late last month.

"As we have said from the beginning of these discussions, they are designed to explore the willingness of North Korea to take concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization. In that regard, these were constructive and business-like discussions," Bosworth said after two days of meetings with the DPRK delegation, which was led by North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan.

"The United States supports emergency humanitarian assistance to the people of North Korea in accordance with international standards for monitoring. Our humanitarian assistance is not linked to any political or security issues," the State Department said last week about the food aid situation, but also said that, "No additional aid has been requested at this time."

Seeing as how questions related to U.S. engagement with North Korea on nuclear issues nor consideration of food aid are likely to be resolved anytime soon, the path forward for Kim’s confirmation remains unclear. The South Korean government, which is opposed to food aid and skeptical of engagement with the DPRK, nonetheless wants Kim confirmed as soon as possible. He would be the first Korean-American to lead the U.S. embassy in Seoul.

Meanwhile, some other top State and USAID nominees also face tough confirmation fights when Congress gets back from vacation next month. There was one hold lifted on Mara Rudman, the nominee to be USAID administrator for the Middle East, but now another hold has been placed on her nomination.

The nomination of Wendy Sherman, the president’s choice for undersecretary of state for political affairs, is not ripe yet for a hold because she hasn’t yet been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Her confirmation hearing was cancelled last week because senators couldn’t be bothered to stick around after the debt ceiling vote. There are several GOP senators prepared to object to Sherman’s confirmation, so that post could remain vacant quite a while.

GOP senators are prepared to demand that Sherman reveal her private clients as a partner at the strategy firm Albright-Stonebridge, which they suspect include Chinese state-owned companies. As of yet, there is no public evidence that Sherman worked on behalf of the Chinese.

Another State Department nomination on hold is Tom Countryman for assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN). Nominated last January, Countryman was approved by the SFRC last month and placed on the "hotline," which would allow his nomination to be approved quickly assuming there are no objections. The fact that he was not confirmed is a sure sign there is at least one senator opposed to him, making him the latest in the long line of State Department nominations stuck on Capitol Hill.