Originally published March 15, 2018, in The Hoya.
Georgetown professor Victor Cha’s expected nomination as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea was abruptly scrapped after he privately shared criticism of President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy.
With no known candidates in consideration for the empty post, two current and former deans of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service say Cha’s scuttled nomination has left U.S. diplomacy on the Korean peninsula in limbo.
Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, and former director of the Asian studies program at Georgetown, opposed Trump’s interest in what is known as a “bloody nose” strike, a limited preventive attack, against North Korea. He expressed his concerns to National Security Council officials in late December, according to The Washington Post.
In an interview with The Hoya, SFS Dean Joel Hellman raised alarm at the administration’s decision to drop Cha at a tense moment for U.S. foreign policy with North Korea.
“I feel strongly that Victor Cha was indeed one of the best possible choices for ambassador to South Korea at this particular moment,” Hellman said. “I was deeply disappointed to see that he did not ultimately get the nomination.”
A preventive strike differs from a pre-emptive strike in that an enemy threat is not imminent. The Trump administration supports a potential preventive strike to send a message of military strength. Cha opposes this position and wrote a Washington Post op-ed that detailed his views following the news that the administration dropped him as a candidate.
“The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power,” Cha wrote.
Although Cha has earned a reputation for having hawkish views on North Korean policy, his concerns regarding a preventive strike are centered on the potential for the death of thousands of Americans in South and North Korea and escalation of conflict.
“That is not permitted under international law, it is not sanctioned by just war theory, and that Victor should take that position strikes me as not surprising,” said Robert Gallucci, former dean of School of Foreign Service, current chairman of the Johns Hopkins US-Korea Institute and former U.S. ambassador-at-large.
Gallucci said the vacancy is especially serious, given the administration’s demonstrated interest in a “bloody nose” strike.
“In a matter of hours, a lot of people can die,” Gallucci said. “This makes it different than the next appointment at the Social Security Administration.”
Cha, who served in former President George W. Bush’s administration, had not yet been formally nominated to the Senate for the ambassador position. However, the South Korean government had formally approved of Cha, completing the final steps of the prenomination procedure.
Had Cha been appointed, he would have succeeded Mark Lippert, an appointee of former President Barack Obama who left the post in January 2017. Since Lippert’s departure, Marc Knapper has led the embassy in Seoul as interim charge d’affaires.
South Korean officials hoped Cha would be officially appointed before last month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, according to The Washington Post. Although the United States and South Korea agreed to pause joint military exercises during the Olympics and North Korean athletes joined the South Korean contingent, many worry tensions will rise yet again now that the games are over.
Now, over a year into Trump’s presidency, the appointment process is back to where it started.
“I imagine there are probably Korea experts around who would be able to say, ‘I have an open mind about a preventive strike,’” Gallucci said. “But it will be hard to match professor Victor Cha’s qualifications for that position right now.”
It is unclear who else the administration may consider as ambassador to Seoul now that Cha is off the list. As of March 8, the vacant position of ambassador to South Korea is one of 38 unfilled ambassadorships, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
The still-vacant position of ambassador to South Korea is a striking example of the State Department’s consistent failure to fill key senior and junior posts under recently fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Many senior positions remain unfilled over a year into the new administration, and intake at the entry level has plummeted. Students at Georgetown, traditionally a major State Department feeder school, have also expressed concerns over dwindling foreign service opportunities under the current administration.
However, Hellman is optimistic that the recent appointment of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to Secretary of State, replacing Rex Tillerson, is a sign of shifting attitudes toward foreign service within the administration.
“There may be an effort to re-evaluate and recommit to the really critical importance” of the State Department, Hellman said.
Trump’s hardline approach to North Korea has been a key aspect of his foreign policy throughout his term.
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” Trump said in his State of the Union address in January. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”
Even as Trump has expressed willingness to meet face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the position of ambassador to South Korea remains empty. Hellman noted it will be difficult to match Cha’s expertise, particularly “in a situation as sensitive as South Korea at the moment,” he said.
“If you ask me what kind of ambassador they need, they need an ambassador like Victor Cha,” Hellman said.