SYDNEY (AFP) - Veteran Asia-hand Admiral Harry Harris is to be the new US ambassador to South Korea, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed, filling a post that has been vacant for 15 months.
Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Command, who is known for his hawkish positions on China, had been due to become Washington's man in Canberra, until a late switch.
The move comes with the Korean peninsula in sharp diplomatic focus, with the leaders of North and South due to hold a summit on Friday, and US President Donald Trump expected to meet Kim Jong Un in the next few months.
Turnbull said he had been informed of the change of plans early this week, just as Harris was set to begin confirmation hearings in Washington.
"I'm disappointed that Harry's not coming because he is a really good friend and I think Harry will be disappointed that he is not coming to Canberra too because he loves Australia," Turnbull said late Wednesday during a visit to France.
But Harris "is a guy of enormous experience and ability and given the situation on the Korean peninsula, given the tensions there, I can well understand why the president has decided that the admiral's expertise and experience is going to be put to better use in Korea than in Australia."
The ambassador's job in Canberra has been vacant for nearly a year-and-a-half but Turnbull was quick to play down any notion that the last-minute switch sending Harris to Seoul represented a snub to one of Washington's closest allies.
"You know the relationship between Australia and the United States... is so deep, it's so intense it operates at so many levels," he said.
The US charge d'affaires, Jim Carouso, said he shared Turnbull's disappointment that Harris would not be taking charge of the embassy, but acknowledged his skills were needed in Seoul as Trump prepares for an unprecedented meeting with North Korea's Kim.
"I would have been honoured to work with him," Carouso said of Harris on Sky News Thursday.
"We need our best person immediately available to go (to South Korea) and handle what's going to be a difficult negotiation," he said.