When Vice President Mike Pence travels to South Korea for the Feb. 9 opening of the Winter Olympiad, there will still be no U.S. Ambassador there to greet him – and that is a problem which continues to grate on relations with one of America’s most important strategic allies.
It has been an embarrassment for a year that the U.S. has no Ambassador on the scene to be in constant contact with the leadership in Seoul, at a time when the troubled relationship with the rogue state of North Korea has grown from a diplomatic annoyance to a nuclear threat that could lead to World War III.
Since August of 2017, there have been rumors that Trump had finally found someone to nominate, one Mr. Victor D. Cha, the Korea program chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, and the director of Asian studies at the University’s School of Foreign Service.
Cha is also a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, and so both his qualifications and his political acceptability should be more than sufficient.
The U.S. government even told South Korea they planned to tap Cha, and the leadership in Seoul quickly gave their approval and endorsement of the choice, who is well known in the international diplomatic community.
Newspapers in Seoul wrote stories hailing the choice and speculating that he would be approved by the U.S. Senate and be on the job when the Olympic torch is lit.
Instead, the flame for Cha has gone out at the White House.
The Washington Post is reporting that after months of an intense security and background checks, Cha is not going to be nominated as Ambassador to South Korea.
This story is causing shock-waves in South Korea this morning. Victor Cha is well known there and people were reassured he was being sent. Plus: South Koreans also have, er, misgivings about bloody nose/strikes on North Korea https://t.co/5uNMNomOKb
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) January 30, 2018
It is not because of who he is, or anything he has done that’s improper – he didn’t even sign a ‘Never Trump’ petition during the 2016 campaign like many other academics – but rather it is over disagreements on policy.
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) January 30, 2018
In private discussions with Trump officials this past December, it is speculated, Cha raised concerns about U.S. consideration of a plan for a limited military strike on North Korea designed to send them a message, a high-risk concept known as the “bloody nose” strategy.
It is risky because the North is run by a dictator who has made it obvious he will react badly and unpredictably with any major provocation from Trump.
While Kim Jong-un has shown his military has nuclear weapons that can be delivered on long-range missiles to anywhere from Tokyo to Los Angeles, he doesn’t need to go nuclear to cause devastation.
North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces and short range rockets aimed at the crowded city of Seoul. Within minutes of a U.S. attack, those conventional weapons could kill millions of South Korean citizens and flatten large sections of the capital city.
Trump has responded with more sanctions on the North, but it seems to not have had a great effect. Efforts to get China to reign in North Korea have also been ineffective.
More recently, Trump has taken to fighting with the South Koreas over trade issues. He has called a bilateral trade deal with South Korea unfair to American companies. Lst week, the Trump administration imposed new tariffs on imports from South Korea of washing machines and solar energy panels, drawing harsh criticism from Seoul.
Cha, according to the Washington Post, “also objected to the administration’s threats to tear up a bilateral trade deal with Seoul.”
That was apparently enough for Trump and his foreign policy team to change their mind and return to searching for someone with the diplomatic skills to handle Seoul and a thick enough skin to go along with Trump’s threats to use his “big button” on North Korea.
Victor Cha would have been a good ambassador and a voice of reason in Trump administration Asia policy. I should have known that was far too much to ask for.https://t.co/7BebOUhLBy
— Gregg Brazinsky 裴斗虎 (@GBrazinsky) January 30, 2018
What it amounts to is another embarrassing mess that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s failure to move quickly on key appointments and Trump’s bizarre, even insane policies have caused.
This story on Victor Cha shows the continued chaos of the @realDonaldTrump Administration when it comes to North Korea. Utterly ridiculous that @POTUS still has not nominated anyone to be the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, a critical position. https://t.co/dsQGCZ6xku
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) January 30, 2018
Aside from insulting a key ally from a country where the U.S. has many thousands of troops on the ground – that borders on the most dangerous and unpredictable country on the planet – and messing with an important trading partner, Trump’s actions make him look inept and make America seem like a paper tiger that roars but is really just a lot of noise.
Difficult to convey recklessness embedded in this account:
* Whole idea of “bloody nose” strike on nuke-armed regime whose identity is standing up to US
* Picking trade fight with SKor at same time
* That Victor Cha (GWB official) would be too “moderate”https://t.co/MXFQBox96N pic.twitter.com/jGCrjO8xzd
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) January 30, 2018
The scary part is that this is an indication Trump is really considering the “bloody nose” strategy a viable option even though it could set off a conventional and nuclear war that would damage not just large parts of Asia, but the entire world as radioactive clouds float over oceans and continents.
That doesn’t even count the possibility that North Korea, cornered and angry, would send missiles at targets from U.S. based in the Pacific to downtown Washington, D.C. at a time the U.S. still does not have a full proof system to stop the bombs before they arrive.