North Korea envoy tapped as next ambassador to Seoul
President Barack Obama announced on late Friday afternoon his intention to nominate Sung Kim, the administration’s special envoy to the Six Party Talks, as the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea. However, Kim wasn’t the administration’s first choice. Originally, the administration had proposed sending Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joe Donovan as ambassador to ...
President Barack Obama announced on late Friday afternoon his intention to nominate Sung Kim, the administration’s special envoy to the Six Party Talks, as the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea. However, Kim wasn’t the administration’s first choice.
Originally, the administration had proposed sending Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joe Donovan as ambassador to Seoul, two administration officials confirmed. But the South Korean government rejected Donovan because they wanted an envoy with a higher political profile, or at least someone who they believed had personal access to the highest levels of the Obama administration.
Kim, who has been a key player in the effort to increase international pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, would replace outgoing U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens if confirmed. The administration plans to name Clifford Hart, a China-Taiwan specialist now working as a top Asia advisor for the Navy, as Kim’s replacement as special envoy.
The South Koreans have long sought a high-level political appointee rather than a senior Foreign Service officer, as has been the tradition, for a U.S. ambassador there. They believe such a step would signal their importance to Washington, and tie the nation more closely to the administration. Other Asian powers, like Japan, have traditionally received a distinguished or at least politically well-connected envoy.
"The Koreans for a long time wanted the Japan template, which is a high-level appointee like former House Speaker Tom Foley, or if not a Foley, a Schieffer -Roos, model, which is someone who is not as well-known but who is very close to the president," said former NSC Senior Director for Asia Victor Cha, now a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Tom Schieffer was a very close personal friend of President George W. Bush. Current U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos was a top Obama campaign bundler and an early supporter of the president.
The Koreans ultimately accepted Kim because he would be symbolically important as the first Korean-American to become U.S. ambassador to Seoul, and because he is well-known and well-respected in the region, Cha said.
"Sung is a very different sort of candidate, because he is the first Korean-American ambassador. The Koreans also like the fact that he worked in two administrations on the North Korean issue and is not seen as partisan," he said.
Some names that had been floated for the Seoul job included former Sen. Chuck Hagel, former Congressman Jim Leach, and Harvard international affairs scholar Joseph Nye. But the State Department’s thinking, according to officials, is that the Korea post requires strong relationships with the government leadership and subject matter expertise.
Stephens, who speaks fluent Korean and completed three tours in Seoul before becoming ambassador, turned out to be wildly popular in Korea.
Cha describes Hart, who will likely replace Kim as special envoy, as "a competent diplomat who knows China very well." Hart may have some additional time to get his bearing, Cha added, because when it comes to the stalled Six Party Talks, "nothing’s going on."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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