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Concerns grow over withdrawal of Victor Cha as US ambassador to S. Korea

Washington’s decision to drop Victor Cha as its next US ambassador to South Korea is fueling concerns that the Trump administration may be considering a figure with a tougher stance on North Korea and that there may be discord in the South Korea-US alliance.

Washington withdrew the nomination of Cha, a former director for Asian affairs for the National Security Council under the Bush administration, reportedly due to his disagreement with the Trump administration’s “bloody nose” strategy against Pyongyang and its threats to end a free trade deal with Seoul, according to news reports.

The Foreign Ministry sought to allay such concerns Thursday, saying that the US had sought South Korea’s understanding through diplomatic channels for not nominating its ambassador to Seoul before the Winter Olympics as planned.

“It has also asked for our understanding about the fact that the matter was reported in the media before it was property discussed with the South,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Noh Kyu-duk said in a regular press briefing.

He said that the allies continue to cooperate on filling the vacancy as soon as possible and reaffirmed that they also closely communicate at “every possible level” in dealing with pending issues.
Victor Cha. (Yonhap)
Victor Cha. (Yonhap)

While the reasons for the withdrawal remains unconfirmed, opposition lawmakers and experts here see the ghosting of Cha as a sign that the Trump administration’s North Korea policy is much more hardline than expected and that it is seriously considering the “bloody nose” strategy -- a limited strike on North Korea to send a message that provocations would not be tolerated.

“Victor Cha’s withdrawal is an incident that presages how the Trump administration will respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile (threats),” said Rep. Yoo Seong-min, head of the conservative minor opposition Bareun Party, during a meeting of party leaders.

If President Trump disapproved of even Victor Cha, who is known to be hawkish, we have to think seriously about its meaning.”

The Trump administration’s failure to fill the post of US ambassador to South Korea for more than a year also triggered worries over a possible discord in the Korea-US alliance in countering North Korea.

“We are worried that there is a serious rift in the Korea-US relations,” Jeong Tae-ok, spokesperson of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, said in a statement. “If the US is serious about (a military option) to the extent that it cannot accept Victor Cha, who is viewed as hawkish, we are worried that the Korean Peninsula is in great danger.”

Calling the US’ move “diplomatic discourtesy,” Rep. Lee Yong-ho of the minor opposition People’s Party said that the long vacancy of the post of the US ambassador to Korea is a sign of a “problem” in the South Korea-US alliance.

He added that “it is worrisome what will happen after the end of the PyeongChang Olympics.”

The government has been seeking to use the momentum created by Pyongyang’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics to lead North Korea and the US into talks on denuclearization.

Democrats and foreign-policy experts in the US also voiced concerns. 

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth said in a statement that “we have reached a point where opposing war as the first resort seems to be a disqualifier from serving as ambassador.”

“Their failure to nominate an ambassador to South Korea after more than a year in office sends a terrible message to our allies and endangers the lives of State Department officials and service members currently serving in Korea.”

Meanwhile, Washington dismissed concerns surrounding the withdrawal of Cha.

“It’s a lengthy and thorough vetting process. Until a candidate is nominated, we have a highly experienced and well-respected charge d’affaires serving in Seoul,” said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.

By Ock Hyun-ju (