‘Next US ambassador may have military background’: expert

By Jung Min-kyung
  • Published : Mar 5, 2018 - 16:05
  • Updated : Mar 5, 2018 - 22:30

With the position of the US ambassador to South Korea still vacant amid ongoing inter-Korean exchanges, analysts speculate that an official with a military background may surface as a viable candidate. 

Former USFK commander Walter Sharp. (US Department of Defense)

“There are talks in the diplomatic sphere that someone with a military background may fill the position,” Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, told The Korea Herald.

The post -- which has been vacant for over a year -- is currently held in the interim by charge d’affaires Marc Knapper.

Mark Lippert, the previous ambassador and a political appointee of President Barack Obama vacated the post when US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

Shin said the diplomatic circle here is talking about several candidates, including retired US and UN Korea Forces Commander Gen. Walter Sharp. There is a high possibility that a hard-liner with a hawkish stance may set foot in Seoul to stand on the same page with the Trump administration, according to Shin.

Sharp, who is the head of the Korea Defense Veterans Association, served as commander of the USFK from 2008 to 2011. He is a known hard-liner when dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and humanitarian issues and has been vocal about such subjects for years.

Sharp was also mentioned as a strong candidate, alongside Victor Cha, a former director for Asian affairs for the National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration, when buzz over the appointment of the next US envoy to Seoul was building up after Trump’s inauguration.

Cha was largely expected to become the next US ambassador to South Korea, but his appointment was withdrawn in late January reportedly due to his views on a possible preventative strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities. His concerns about military action put him at odds with the Trump administration, several media reports claimed.

A US-based expert also said that an official with a military background could be tapped to highlight Washington’s current stance on North Korea issues.

“But to give you a sense of the two views out there, one is that a US senior military official could be a good fit given the sense of elevated security and a way to send a message to North Korea on the seriousness of the US’ commitment to the situation,” John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School, said in a lecture hosted by the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies in Seoul last week.

On the other hand, the envoy may not necessarily be a military or Korea expert, said Park.

“Another opinion or rumor is a business person or someone who is close politically to President Trump, but not necessarily someone who understands the local dynamics here or the complexity of the situation,” he added.

Knapper, who has been “dutifully” delivering Washington’s messages to South Korea for more than a year now as the acting US ambassador, is another likely candidate, said Shin.

Regarding the timeframe of the appointment, experts say that the position is likely to remain vacant for “a while” despite Seoul’s efforts to bring North Korea to the US-North dialogue table for denuclearization. The grueling process of naming a nominee, a thorough background check and confirmation are expected to further delay the nomination, they say.

By Jung Min-kyung (