US State Department's top North Korea diplomat Joseph Yun to retire on Friday

Joseph Yun, who is 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.
Joseph Yun, who is 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.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (WASHINGTON POST) - The State Department's point-man on North Korea, Joseph Yun, will leave his post on Friday (March 2), even as there are glimmers of hope that Pyongyang might finally be willing to sit down for talks with Washington.

Yun, who is 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 Trump administration, according to someone familiar with 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. Victor Cha, an academic who served in the George W. Bush administration, had been in the running for the job, but the administration abruptly scrapped his candidacy last month.

Yun confirmed that he would be retiring and that Friday would be his last day. "This is my own personal decision," Yun told The Washington Post.

"Secretary Tillerson has told me he appreciates my service and did not want me to go, but he accepts it reluctantly."

Yun was the main person in the State Department dealing with the North Korea problem, and travelled to Seoul and Tokyo frequently to coordinate with the US allies.

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

Yun brought Warmbier back to the United States on a medical evacuation flight. The 22-year-old died six days later.

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

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

He has been the US government's main interlocutor with North Korea's diplomats assigned to the United Nations, the working-level hotline called "the New York channel." Yun has been regularly meeting with his counterpart there, Pak Song Il.

Last May (2017), he met in Oslo with the head of the Americas division in North Korea's foreign ministry, Choe Son Hui, to arrange for Warmbier's release. Choe is thought to have a direct line to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.

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

At the Olympic Games in South Korea, which closed on Sunday, South Korean president Moon Jae In has been trying 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 with 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, Moon said, although it remains unclear whether denuclearisation would be on the agenda.

Yun's departure comes as many foreign service officers have expressed frustration with the Trump administration's unwillingness to listen to the State Department.

The top career diplomat in the State Department, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, earlier this month (Feb) announced he would be retiring after 35 years in the Foreign Service.

Yun, who was born in South Korea but is a naturalised American citizen, joined the State Department in 1985.

He served as head of the political division in the US Embassy in Seoul during in the early 2000s, including when Roh Moo Hyun was president and his chief of staff was Moon Jae In, the current president.

It was Yun who wrote the now-famous diplomatic cable describing Choi Tae Min, the spiritual adviser to disgraced South Korean president Park Geun Hye, as a "Korea Rasputin." Between 2013 and 2016, during the Obama administration, Yun served as ambassador to Malaysia.