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Who’s in charge of Korea?

With Obama envoy Stephen Bosworth, above, finally visiting Pyongyang and a lot of names floating around, Cable readers may be wondering: Who’s in charge of Korea, anyway? We’ve got you covered. In general, Obama’s Korea team is largely devoid of the factionalism and infighting that hampered Korea policymaking during the Bush years. The players, although ...

575821_091208_bosworth2.jpg
575821_091208_bosworth2.jpg

With Obama envoy Stephen Bosworth, above, finally visiting Pyongyang and a lot of names floating around, Cable readers may be wondering: Who's in charge of Korea, anyway? We've got you covered.

In general, Obama's Korea team is largely devoid of the factionalism and infighting that hampered Korea policymaking during the Bush years. The players, although spread across agencies and with various responsibilities, are largely on the same page. Here are the main actors to watch:

With Obama envoy Stephen Bosworth, above, finally visiting Pyongyang and a lot of names floating around, Cable readers may be wondering: Who’s in charge of Korea, anyway? We’ve got you covered.

In general, Obama’s Korea team is largely devoid of the factionalism and infighting that hampered Korea policymaking during the Bush years. The players, although spread across agencies and with various responsibilities, are largely on the same page. Here are the main actors to watch:

At the top level, strategic decisions are being guided by James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, and Jeffrey Bader, the NSC’s senior director for Asia. Both are well-regarded among Asia experts.

Steinberg, who supports U.N. sanctions on the regime of Kim Jong Il, is said to be central to the administration’s policy of slow-walking the engagement with North Korea, patiently waiting for the DPRK to exhaust its pattern of threats and come to the realization that the Obama administration is willing to engage, but not at the expense of backtracking too much on promises made in the past.

This approach is a stark departure from the first Bush term, when Vice President Dick Cheney and Under Secretary of State John Bolton teamed up to push for regime change. The policy is also quite different from that of Bush’s second term, when Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill worked furiously to produce short-term incremental progress points, the survivability of which is now in question.

“Steinberg is really running the show at that level,” said one Asia hand, describing the thinking as an ABC (Anything But Chris [Hill]) approach to North Korea.

Kurt Campbell, Hill’s successor as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, isn’t dual-hatted as Obama’s lead on the North Korean nuclear negotiations, like Hill was. Campbell, who coauthored a book with Steinberg last year (Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power), has focused instead on shoring up relations all over the region, traveling furiously to such places as China, Burma, and Japan. He maintains a presence in the Korea debate, though it’s not clear how much of a role he has.

Bader took the lead on the president’s trip to Asia, during which the South Korea visit was the most significant success. Observers credit Obama’s increasingly strong relationship with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in part to Bader’s assiduous spade work.

Bader is aided by fellow NSC staffer Daniel Russell, a career Foreign Service officer with stints in Tokyo and Seoul who previously headed State’s Japan desk. Russell is in the job formerly held by Victor Cha, who currently teaches at Georgetown University. Whereas Cha was seen as a reliable hawk, an accomplished expert but with an agenda, Russell is viewed as a technocrat, a workhorse, a professional doing his job. If he has a strong leaning on Korea policy, he keeps it closely held.

At the Pentagon, retired General Chip Gregson is the Asia point man, and like Campbell has a broad portfolio. He is seen as a more reserved but nonetheless effective manager as compared with his most prominent predecessor, former Deputy Under Secretary Richard Lawless.

Gregson’s two main aides on Korea are Principal Deputy Derek Mitchell and Deputy Michael Schiffer, both of whom are Obama appointees and close friends and work in tandem on Asia issues, including Korea. Mitchell did some groundbreaking work on the U.S.-ROK relationship when he was a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Schiffer is more of a Japan hand by training. Although Mitchell technically outranks Schiffer, they are seen as close collaborators who divide responsibilities as needed.

For example, Mitchell went to San Diego last month to attend the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, which included North Korean government representatives,  and Schiffer is in Pyongyang right now with Bosworth and Sung Kim, the special representative for North Korea and the special envoy to the Six-Party Talks, respectively.

Under Bush, Kim was Hill’s No. 2, but Hill was excruciatingly involved in all aspects of the negotiations. Bosworth, who is handling his administration duties part time while serving as the dean of the Fletcher School, is now delegating more and more responsibilities to Kim.

Kim represents the institutional memory of the State Department on North Korea and conducted the behind-the-scenes work to set up this week’s trip. By designating Kim as the head of the U.S. delegation to the talks and elevating Bosworth to a broader title, the administration’s hope is that Bosworth will be able to find North Korean interlocutors at a higher level. (That remains to be seen.)

Bosworth, an elder statesman who has served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines, and Tunisia, has also been charged with mending relationships with allies. He is seen as good fit for Obama’s wait-and-see approach to North Korea.

“Steve Bosworth is going to Pyongyang without the personal ambitions that so surrounded Chris Hill,” said one Asia hand. “So he will have the political space and personal judgment to take advantage of opportunities if they arise.”

On the economic side, Korea policy is influenced mainly by a triumvirate of officials, made up of Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler, James Loi, the White House’s lead on Asian economic issues, and Kurt Tong, the head of State’s Korea desk and State’s lead for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Cutler is also in Seoul this week.

But the Obama administration is still searching for a trade policy and movement on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is not expected anytime soon. Political bosses in the White House are said to be avoiding any movement on trade before the November 2010 midterm elections.

“What you don’t have is anyone taking any leadership at all on economic issues related to Korea,” one Korea watcher explained.

Two other players to watch are the new special envoy for North Korean human rights, Robert King, and senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Frank Jannuzi.

King is putting life into the position first awarded to but largely neglected by Jay Leftkowitz. Leftkowitz was a part-time envoy and his main objective, to put human rights on the agenda in the Six-Party Talks, was thwarted by all of the other actors. King is in Geneva this week representing the U.S. at the U.N.’s periodical review on North Korean human rights. He is said to have good access to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and close ties on the Hill based on his long experience as a staffer for the lateTom Lantos.

Jannuzi was a key player on then-Senator Obama’s campaign Asia policy team. Close to Vice President Joseph Biden, he was widely expected to move to the administration, but even though he remains at his committee post, he is considered an influential player on all things Korea and has the ear of Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-MA.

Outside experts see the Obama team as still searching for a clear voice on dealing with North Korea and building relations with the South.

“At this point, the process is the policy,” one expert explained.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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