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Joseph Yun, U.S. special representative for North Korean policy, will resign his post, leaving a critical vacuum in the State Department.   © AP
North Korea Crisis

Key US diplomat on North Korea policy quits

High-level vacancies leave Washington poorly positioned to deal with Pyongyang

WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. diplomat on North Korea policy said Tuesday he will retire this week, further depleting an already short-handed State Department even as Washington and Pyongyang inch closer to dialogue.

Joseph Yun will step down Friday as special representative for North Korea policy and deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan. "This is my own personal decision," he told the Washington Post, though he did not give a reason for it.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to dissuade him but ultimately accepted his resignation "reluctantly," Yun said.

Yun's diplomatic career spans more than three decades, including a stint as ambassador to Malaysia from 2013 to 2016 under then-President Barack Obama. In his current post, which he assumed in October 2016, Yun served as the chief U.S. delegate to long-stalled six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program and coordinated with Japan and South Korea on North Korea policy.

Yun traveled to Pyongyang in June to negotiate the release of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died after returning home, in the first North Korean visit by a U.S. official under President Donald Trump.  He is among the few American diplomats with connections in the North.

Yun, like Tillerson, is said to favor dialogue with Pyongyang -- a tricky position to take in a Trump administration focused on pressure rather than engagement.

North Korea used the Winter Olympics in South Korea as an opportunity to cozy up to Seoul. Kim Yong Chol, deputy chief of the North's ruling Workers' Party, said Monday that the door is open to dialogue with the U.S. as well. Washington has also indicated openness to talks. But the departure of Yun, an advocate of dialogue, could spur a shift in U.S. policy.

Some argue that Yun's retirement reflects pent-up frustration in American diplomatic circles as the State Department loses influence under the current administration. A number of key Asia-Pacific posts sit unfilled, complicating the task of developing and implementing policy in the region.

The administration still lacks an ambassador to South Korea more than a year into Trump's term. Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was reportedly set to be nominated, but the White House withdrew its support last month, possibly owing to Cha's opposition to even a limited military strike against North Korea.

The White House nominated Susan Thornton in December as assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the State Department's top post for the region, but she has yet to be confirmed by Congress. Thornton currently serves as acting assistant secretary.

The high-level vacancies extend far beyond the Asia-Pacific team. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon tendered his resignation early this month. Though he has said he will stay on until a replacement is named, five of the six undersecretary posts -- the department's third-highest-ranking positions -- now need to be filled.

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