A new US ambassador to South Korea has finally been nominated, 11 months after the post was vacated. At a time of soaring strategic risks and possible friction between Seoul and Washington over Pyongyang policy, the position demands a virtuoso with talents for hard work, multi-tasking and diplomatic finesse.
The nominee, Korean-American academic Dr. Victor Cha of Georgetown University and the Center for and Strategic and International Studies, has long been one of the most prominent voices on North Korea in Washington DC and is noted for his hawkish tone toward Pyongyang. From 2004 to 2007, he was director for Asian affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.
Cha’s predecessor, Barack Obama appointee Mark Lippert – who survived a knife attack from an anti-American activist and was lauded in Seoul for his engaging public diplomacy – had a background in US Naval Intelligence. Lippert departed following the election of President Donald Trump in January, leaving embassy leadership to Charge d’Affaires Marc Knapper.
Having passed US vetting, Cha is reportedly awaiting confirmation from the South Korean government. If this is promptly received, he is expected to be in situ before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics begin in South Korea on Februaru 9, 2018.
While the nomination of a hardliner to the US embassy in Seoul may discomfit some in the Moon Jae-in administration who favor a softer line toward North Korea, it will be met with relief by those who feared that the year-long lack of a US ambassador indicated Seoul had tumbled off Washington’s diplomatic radar.
Cha brings special expertise in Korean affairs to the role.
“For a lot of Korea watchers, there will be a sigh of relief that it is Victor Cha, not an unknown crony or business colleague of Donald Trump,” said Chad O’Carroll, Seoul-based managing director of North Korean information site NK News. “It is good that he is someone who knows the subject well.”
Moreover, he is not as hawkish as some assert, says one colleague.
“Victor has a wealth of knowledge about Korea and familiarity with Korean governments, as he has worked with both progressive and conservative administrations,” said James Kim, a research fellow at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “Overall, this familiarity is a big plus for South Korea. I think his views in many ways are relatively moderate; he is not a war-mongering neo-con by any means.”
Cha will need to leverage all his knowledge – his is a challenging portfolio.
For the first time since its establishment as a state in 1948, North Korea is on the verge of threatening the US mainland. Analysts believe Pyongyang has mastered both the technology to heft a missile across the Pacific, and has miniaturized a nuclear warhead to fit onto its nose. This means the South Korea-US alliance faces a new outlook – one in which South Korean security is no longer the sole priority.
Once a re-entry vehicle and targeting systems are tested – events that are expected to fall within the lifespan of the Trump administration – Pyongyang will possess a fully working ICBM. This has worrisome implications. Seoul would almost certainly resist military action by Washington to pre-empt the completion of this capability. Conversely, there is a possibility of North Korea-US negotiations – and such negotiations have a historical record of being exhausting processes with ultimately unsuccessful outcomes.
“Victor has a wealth of knowledge about Korea and familiarity with Korean governments, as he has worked with both progressive and conservative administrations”
Also on Cha’s watch will be the ongoing relocation of the 28,500 US troops in Korea to a series of bases around Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul. This raises cost-sharing issues. The related matter of the transfer of wartime operational control of local forces to South Korean command is a priority of the Moon administration, and something for which there is no clear blueprint.
Cha will have to exercise diplomatic restraint to avoid igniting anti-Americanism by pressing US policies too aggressively. Currently, Beijing is exerting a diplomatic push-pull strategy upon Seoul, while vocal constituencies take a pro-China, anti-American stance on such delicate issues as the THAAD missile defence system emplaced (to massive Chinese displeasure) by the US in South Korea.
Moreover, US President Donald Trump has demanded a renegotiation of the exhaustively negotiated 2012 Free Trade Agreement with South Korea – an agreement Cha supports. Like other US officials, Cha may also find himself forced to interpret unscripted tweets from his mercurial president.
Finally, Seoul-based US diplomats face the shift of their aging chancery from its prestigious site in Gwanghwamun in the very heart of Seoul to an obscure, back-street location on the edge of the Yongsan US Army base. The latter site is the legacy of a spat during the Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) administration. The United States wished to relocate to a prominent position near a downtown royal palace, but angry local voices argued that any building there could compromise architectural relics that might exist underground. In the years since, no excavation has been made at the site.