There will be an important absence among the many athletes, officials, and dignitaries traveling to PyeongChang to represent the United States at the Winter Olympics. The US ambassador to South Korea is not scheduled to attend the 2018 Games, and not because of security concerns, a prior commitment, or an aversion to cold weather. No, the reason is much more straightforward. There is no US ambassador to South Korea.
There should be, of course. The Trump White House has had more than a year to replace Ambassador Mark Lippert, who left at the end of the Obama administration. That this persistent vacancy comes at a time of high tensions with North Korea only makes the delay all the more concerning. While South Korea is by no means alone on the list of nations still without a Senate-confirmed envoy, the lack of an appointment to Seoul is worth reflecting on for two unique reasons.
First, the Trump administration has been very close to nominating someone. Until just days ago, Victor Cha was widely expected to be named as President Trump’s pick for the job. Cha was the North Korea point man on George W. Bush’s NSC staff. He was an obvious and excellent choice to represent the United States in Seoul. His imminent nomination was widely praised and welcomed in South Korea. Yet the nomination was pulled at the last minute, according to reports, because Cha privately expressed reluctance about the United States striking North Korea with a so-called “bloody-nose” attack. This reluctance seems to have put him at odds with the Trump administration.
Cha was right to express his doubts. A strike against North Korea, even one designed as limited, is unconscionably dangerous. As Cha explains in a Washington Post op-ed published just after he was removed from consideration, there’s an illogic to the argument that a strike is necessary right now. It simply doesn’t square to assume that Kim Jong-un is too irrational to be deterred from launching a nuclear strike but will be rational enough not to escalate after a US attack, however limited that strike.
Second, Cha’s rather public ouster from consideration as ambassador draws attention to the growing divide between Seoul and Washington over how to deal with North Korea. Quite simply, our interests are diverging. The White House is primarily focused on preventing North Korea from obtaining the ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear-tipped ICBM. As Trump explained in the State of the Union, he wants to maximize pressure on Pyongyang now so that it will give up the technology that is nearing that capability. As such, the argument goes, much more pressure now, even a limited military strike, is preferable to allowing Pyongyang to have the capacity to incinerate a major American city.
But South Korea already faces an existential threat from North Korea. A sudden bombardment from North Korea would kill hundreds of thousands in South Korea, perhaps even millions — and even before the use of nuclear weapons is considered. Therefore, Seoul is first and foremost intent on avoiding a conflict with Pyongyang. Rapprochement with North Korea is necessary toward that end, and Seoul has sought renewed dialogue with Pyongyang in recent weeks — even against the protestations of the Trump White House.
In the end, only strong and smart diplomacy can bridge this growing divide between Washington and Seoul over North Korea. That the United States will not have an ambassador to attend the 2018 Winter Games is, all things considered, unfortunate. That the White House does not have a smart, credible, and dedicated ambassador to manage the US alliance with South Korea at this critical moment, however, is nothing short of an unnecessary danger added to an already fraught situation.
As always, I welcome your feedback on this or any other topic in This Week’s Reads.
Victor Cha/The Washington Post
Few know the North Korea issue as well as Victor Cha, and his op-ed in the Washington Post is a smart and clear-eyed assessment of the dangers of a strike against Pyongyang. Among his points is that there is no logic to a strike. “If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?” he writes. Nor does Cha pull any punches in his censure of an administration that would nonetheless choose to go ahead with a strike. “The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size US city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of US kinetic power,” he writes.
Peter Beinart/The Atlantic
President Trump’s first State of the Union clocked in at just over an hour and twenty minutes. But it is what the president did not say in that time that caught the attention of Peter Beinart. As he explains in this smart essay in the Atlantic, neither diplomacy nor sanctions were mentioned much with regard to North Korea. In short, it was exactly the kind of speech the president would give if his administration had already given up on both diplomacy and sanctions and was now preparing for conflict with North Korea. Coupled with recent news, such as Victor Cha being turned down as ambassador, Beinart paints an all too convincing picture of what might come next.
Josh Rogin/The Washington Post
When Vice President Mike Pence visits South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympics he may find himself with little time to take in the sporting events. He will be too busy with diplomacy. The relationship between Washington and Seoul, as Josh Rogin explains in the Washington Post, is at “a low point” for the Trump and Moon administrations. In response, Pence has been tasked with trying to repair the relationship, even as Seoul seeks its own dialogue with Pyongyang against US wishes. In all, reassurance for Seoul from Washington cannot come soon enough. “After the Olympic flame is extinguished,” Rogin writes, “the next phase of the North Korea crisis begins in earnest.”
Dan De Luce, Robbie Gramer, Emily Tamkin/Foreign Policy
President Trump is not expected to attend the Munich Security Conference next week. But as this report in Foreign Policy makes clear, he will very much be a central topic of discussion for the military leaders and diplomats from NATO nations attending the event. A year into the Trump administration US allies are still trying to suss out exactly what the president’s “America First” agenda means for the alliance. Trump has spoken of the obsolescence of NATO, for example, but at the same time he has increased US troop levels in Europe. The Foreign Policy reporters review this and other apparent contradictions by the administration in this smart essay, all in an attempt to understand what might happen next for the alliance.
Jackson Diehl/The Washington Post
There are many strategies available in diplomacy for getting what you want, many sticks and carrots to sway behavior. But as Jackson Diehl explains in the Washington Post, President Trump seems fond on one method in particular: making demands. With the Pakistanis, European allies, and the Palestinians, Trump has set down ultimatums backed by the threat of harsh consequences. With Pakistan, for example, it was the threat of cutting billions in US aid to the country if Islamabad did not do more to fight terrorists. But even worse than this reliance on a single strategy in diplomacy, Diehl writes, is the fact that few of the president’s ultimatums seem to be working.
To be sure, this is not how allies are supposed to act. Turkey’s recent military incursion into Kurdish areas in Syria threatens to put it in direct conflict with US-backed forces in the region. Meanwhile, Ankara is moving ahead with the purchase of an advanced S-400 battery system not from a fellow NATO ally, but from NATO’s chief antagonist, Moscow. It is indeed strange days for Turkey and its fellow NATO allies. Even more concerning, as this excellent essay in the Economist argues, there is little on the horizon to suggest a return soon to, well, allies acting like allies again.
Ernest Moniz and Sam Nunn/Bloomberg
It is difficult to imagine two more qualified individuals to speak on reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons than former US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and former US Senator Sam Nunn, who has since become co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. In this must-read essay in Bloomberg, the two men outline three ways to avert an unintended nuclear war. But it is the third point, I think, that’s the most important: “the US and Russia should reinforce the principle — articulated eloquently by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev — that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” That fact simply cannot be said often enough.
Robbie Gramer and Keith Johnson/Foreign Policy
“I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of the 200-year-old Monroe Doctrine right before his recent trip through Latin America. It was an unusual endorsement of a doctrine seen as controversial and outdated in much the western hemisphere. So what did Tillerson hope to achieve in its defense? He was attempting to equate China’s recent push for influence in Latin America with Europe’s imperial ambitions over the continent in centuries past, as this report in Foreign Policy explains. But the endorsement of the doctrine and the dredging up of the history associated with it seems to have achieved little more than further muddling the administration’s own ambitions in the region.
John Pomfret/The Washington Post
“Just a few years ago, Chinese officials would blanch at the idea that China sought to challenge the United States’ standing in the world,” writes John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing. But, he adds, that was then. “Chinese officials now gush about ‘the chance of a lifetime’ to replace the United States as a great power, at least in Asia.” In this insightful survey of Chinese media in recent weeks, Pomfret makes a convincing case that Beijing is brimming with a newfound triumphalism. From subways to global economic summits, China sees itself as moving seamlessly from victory to victory — all while the United States and much of the West stumbles from embarrassment to embarrassment.
Latin America is not part of the Eurasian landmass, which makes recent statements by China that Latin America is a “natural extension” and “indispensable participant” in Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” mega-project across Eurasia more than a little perplexing. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Latin America is a natural extension of China’s own great-power ambitions. As this report in the Economist makes clear, China has been investing in Latin American infrastructure for some time. But as Beijing’s influence grows in the western hemisphere, there are increasing concerns that the relationship could become about more than just trade and investment. The relationship could take on geopolitical dimensions that end up being more trouble than they’re worth for the Latin American countries involved.