The Koreas

Personnel is Policy, So Who Are the Players in US North Korea Talks?

Recent Features

The Koreas

Personnel is Policy, So Who Are the Players in US North Korea Talks?

An introduction to the officials representing Washington in this week’s North Korea talks.

Personnel is Policy, So Who Are the Players in US North Korea Talks?

Sung Kim, then the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, delivers remarks at a Combined Forces Command Briefing at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul (April 26, 2014)

Credit: U.S. Department of State

For Korea watchers, one of the more significant reasons for skepticism regarding the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea (and its foreign policy in general) has been the absence of qualified personnel. Through significant budget cuts and by leaving vacant numerous mid- and working-level positions, the administration succeeded in demoralizing and denuding the State Department’s various regional offices. East Asia and Korea were no exception.

Yet despite these vacancies or semi-vacancies, things appear to be coming together, if still slowly and incompletely. If, as the saying goes, personnel is policy, then it matters who these people are and what their profile tells us about how they might influence the process ahead.

I have already covered the vacillation around the as-yet unoccupied U.S. ambassadorship in Seoul. Last December, Victor Cha was officially nominated to fill the position. Yet, in February, before his appointment ever faced Senate confirmation, he was out. Then, on April 24, one day before his confirmation hearing to become U.S. ambassador to Australia, Adm. Harry Harris was tapped to become the next ambassador in Seoul. On May 18, Harris was formally nominated and, on Wednesday, was relieved of his post as Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), newly rebranded the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).

Harris’ appointment appears to be moving forward. Harris takes a hardline toward Pyongyang, saying that it “remains our most immediate threat,” its potentially nuclear-capable ICBMs are “unacceptable,” and only through “maximum pressure” has it becomes willing to negotiate. Although it is unclear to what extent Harris will be involved in or influence a potential summit, he will be a part of the implementation process for any agreement that comes out of it, with his stated position to “distrust but verify” anything Pyongyang agrees to.

However, of immediate interest are the working-level officials speaking directly with North Korea. While White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Joe Hagin led an advance team to Singapore, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with North Korea’s Kim Yong-chol in New York City, a team of several experienced U.S. officials held preparatory discussions with their North Korean counterparts, including Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, on the North’s side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Led by Sung Kim, the current U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and former ambassador to Seoul (2011-2014), the group also included Allison Hooker, Korea specialist on the National Security Council, and Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs (who also accompanied Pompeo on his trip to Pyongyang earlier in the month). Of the three, Kim is the only career foreign service officer.

Writing for NK News, Colin Zwirko lays out Sung Kim’s extensive personal and professional experience dealing with both Koreas. He was born in South Korea and emigrated to the U.S., where he became a naturalized citizen and joined the U.S. Foreign Service. He has served in multiple positions in Washington and abroad, including three stints in South Korea, in the early 1990s, from 2002 to 2006, and, finally, as ambassador from 2011 to 2014.

Of particular interest, though, is his direct experience negotiating with Pyongyang. From 2008 to 2011, he was the U.S. special envoy for the Six-Party Talks, focused on implementing the 2007 agreement and trying to restart the negotiations after they fell apart. Then, following his time as ambassador in Seoul, Kim served as U.S. special representative for North Korea policy from November 2014 until September 2016, when Joseph Yun replaced him.

As Zwirko rightly observes, Kim is valuable insofar as he has had relatively extensive direct contact with North Korean negotiators (including Choe, also present at this week’s talks), was committed to and part of the previous 2007 denuclearization agreement, and served in relevant positions during some of the more difficult periods in U.S.-North Korean relations (including during five of Pyongyang’s six nuclear tests). He undoubtedly favors diplomacy over force, and possesses both lived and professional sensitivity to the South Korean point of view.

Allison Hooker, who is the Trump administration’s director for Korea policy, presents another interesting profile. She began her tenure as a civil servant and was detailed to the NSC under former President Barack Obama (and has thus been targeted by Alt-Right media outlets, despite not being an Obama appointee). Hooker previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research as a foreign affairs research analyst focused on North Korean nuclear issues. During this period she was also an Asan-CFR visiting fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, where she rubbed elbows with various officials in the South Korean policymaking community.

In September 2014, as part of a reshuffling of Korea-related policymakers, Hooker was detailed to the NSC as the lead Korea analyst, replacing Sidney Seiler. Soon thereafter, in November, Hooker traveled with James Clapper, then-director of national intelligence, to North Korea in order to gain release of Kenneth Bae and another American detainee, and at the time met with Kim Yong-chol.

Although Hooker was detailed to the NSC under Obama, it was the Trump administration that made her a permanent NSC hire as director for Korea policy. Earlier this year, she traveled to South Korea for the Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, but, despite speculation, did not meet with any North Korean officials. Much like Kim, with whom Hooker has worked before, she favors negotiations and has direct experience with key North Korean officials.

The same 2014 reshuffle that transferred Hooker to the White House saw Sid Seiler become the special envoy for the Six-Party Talks (Sung Kim’s previous post). Seiler currently serves as an analyst in charge of intelligence and reconnaissance on North Korea for United States Forces Korea (USFK), and has been mentioned by some as a potential candidate for the special representative spot. His longstanding experience with Korea, and fluency in the language, make him a valuable if untapped resource.

Last, there is Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver. Of the three officials visiting North Korea, he is the lone Trump appointee, but was not appointed until January 8, 2018. Nevertheless, Schriver has extensive experience in East Asia-oriented positions in both State and Defense, as well as in the private and non-profit sector. He last served during the Bush administration. From 2001 to 2003, he was the chief of staff and senior policy advisor to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and from 2003 to 2005, he was deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under James Kelley, then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Armitage and Kelley, with whom Schriver worked most closely, were skeptical of the Clinton administration’s policy toward North Korea. They did not trust Pyongyang would abide by the freeze on its nuclear program as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework (which it did not), and, before taking office, were openly critical of the possibility Clinton might fly to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il. However, they were less hawkish than other members of the administration, such as UN Ambassador John Bolton and Vice President Dick Cheney, and despite their doubts, persuaded the administration to begin talking with North Korea in 2003.

It appears Schriver shared their views. Indeed, after leaving office in 2005, he and Armitage helped found Armitage International LLC, a consulting firm specializing in international business development and strategies. In sum, Schriver, while relatively hawkish toward Pyongyang, does not share Bolton’s intractable opposition to any talks with the Kim family regime.

What does this all mean? First, bringing together these various officials indicates some in the Trump administration understand that experience and expertise are actually important for complex policymaking. The press of events leading up to a possible summit has certainly catalyzed the effort.

Second, each of these officials (while hardly all of the same mind) generally share a conventional perspective on U.S. East Asia policy and, more specifically, understand that the local U.S. presence in and commitment to South Korea is deeply embedded in a larger regional context. Consequently, while Trump might be interested in a grand bargain, including a possible peace treaty and security guarantees (involving some sort of reduction of U.S. forces), these officials will be directly involved in its implementation. None of them are eager to undo what they see as longstanding U.S. imperatives in Korea or the region, regardless of how eager Trump may be to force a symbolic settlement lacking real substance.

Finally, there are still signs that Trump’s advisors, including Pompeo, do not have a clear sense of what they actually want from North Korea. The more experienced officials profiled above, while not calling shots at the highest level, may provide a more regularized, steady, and realistic approach to the issue. Yet, with Trump at the helm, this could very well be wishful thinking.