When President Donald Trump promised to unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea continues to threaten nuclear war, he might not have remembered Kim Jong-un’s U.S.-friendly neighbors to the south.
With a large number of unfilled positions in the State Department, one vacancy includes U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
“When managing both a chronic and an acute challenge such as those posed by North Korea, the South Korean government needs someone on the scene who can provide tight alliance consultation on the ground and 24/7,” Patrick Cronin, an Asia scholar and Republican at the Center for a New American Security, an influential bipartisan think tank, told BuzzFeed News. “There is no substitute for an able and trusted ambassador.”
South Korea is a target of the North with armaments pointed at it from across the border, so the absence of an ambassador could understandably cause Seoul alarm.
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“The South Koreans are wondering why Japan, China, Singapore and other Asian countries have an ambassador in place, but they do not,” Bonnie Glaser, an Asia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told BuzzFeed News. “There is no representative of the president in [the] country to ensure smooth communications.”
A State Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed that appointments go through the White House; the White House spokesperson declined to comment on unannounced personnel decisions.
China, which is North Korea's closest ally despite its anger at Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs, described the situation as "complex and sensitive," and urged calm and a return to talks.
"China calls on all sides to uphold the main direction of a political resolution to the Korean peninsula nuclear issue, and avoid any words or actions that may intensify the problem and escalate the situation," the government said in a statement sent to Reuters, repeating its customary stance.
The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within range of massed North Korean rockets and artillery, which would be impossible to destroy in a first U.S. strike. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain stationed in South Korea and in nearby Japan.
Reuters contributed to this report.