US point man on North Korea to retire this week

Mr Joseph Yun joined the US State Department in 1985 and was the main person dealing with the North Korea issue, travelling to Seoul and Tokyo frequently to coordinate with the Washington allies.
Mr Joseph Yun joined the US State Department in 1985 and was the main person dealing with the North Korea issue, travelling to Seoul and Tokyo frequently to coordinate with the Washington allies.PHOTO: REUTERS

Joseph Yun had pushed for dialogue with Pyongyang during past year of high tensions

SEOUL • The US State Department's point man on North Korea will leave his post on Friday, even as there are glimmers of hope that Pyongyang might finally be willing to sit down for talks with Washington.

Mr Joseph Yun, 63, is retiring as special representative for North Korea policy and deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan after more than three decades of service.

His departure reflects the widespread frustration within the State Department at diplomats' relative lack of power in the Donald Trump administration, according to someone familiar with Mr Yun's thinking.

It will leave another gaping hole in the United States' staffing on Korean issues. Washington has still not nominated an ambassador to South Korea, 13 months into the Trump administration.

Mr Victor Cha had been in the running for the job, but the administration abruptly scrapped his candidacy last month.

Mr Yun has confirmed he would be retiring and that Friday would be his last day. "This is my own personal decision," he told The Washington Post. "Secretary (Rex) Tillerson has told me he appreciates my service and did not want me to go, but he accepts it reluctantly."

Mr Yun was born in South Korea and is a naturalised American citizen. He joined the State Department in 1985 and was the main person dealing with the North Korea issue, travelling to Seoul and Tokyo frequently to coordinate with the Washington allies.

He also travelled to Pyongyang last June to collect 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who had been held in North Korea for 17 months, almost all of them in a coma.

His departure reflects the widespread frustration within the State Department at diplomats' relative lack of power in the Donald Trump administration, according to someone familiar with Mr Yun's thinking.

It will leave another gaping hole in the United States' staffing on Korean issues.

Mr Yun brought Mr Warmbier back to the US on a medical evacuation flight. The student died six days later.

During that trip, Mr Yun was able to see the three other Americans being held in North Korea. That was the last time the three men have been seen or heard from.

A strong advocate of engagement with North Korea, Mr Yun has been arguing in favour of dialogue with Pyongyang during the last year of increased tensions.

He has been Washington's main interlocutor with Pyongyang's diplomats assigned to the United Nations, the working-level hot line called "the New York channel".

He has also been regularly meeting his North Korean counterpart at the UN, Mr Pak Song Il.

Last May, he met the head of the Americas division in North Korea's Foreign Ministry, Ms Choe Son Hui, in Oslo, to arrange for Mr Warmbier's release. Ms Choe is thought to have a direct line to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.

Still, Mr Yun's efforts to promote dialogue with North Korea have been stymied by Mr Trump, who has threatened to rain "fire and fury" down on the North Korean leader, whom Mr Trump has derided as "little rocket man".

At the Winter Olympics in South Korea, which closed on Sunday, President Moon Jae In had tried to promote dialogue, eliciting a sign from North Korea's representatives that they are willing to talk to the Trump administration.

But the signals have been mixed, to say the least. The White House reported that Vice-President Mike Pence was prepared to meet North Korean officials during the Olympics opening ceremony but that they backed down at the last moment. The administration has kept up its drumbeat of "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang.

North Korea's chief delegate to the closing ceremony Kim Yong Chol had indicated a renewed willingness for talks, Mr Moon said, although it remains unclear whether denuclearisation would be on the agenda.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2018, with the headline 'US point man on North Korea to retire this week'. Print Edition | Subscribe