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South Korea

Retired US Army general and foreign affairs chair eyed for role of Donald Trump’s South Korea envoy

James Thurman and outgoing Republican Representative Edward Royce are newest candidates for the Seoul ambassadorship, sources say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 7:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 10:03pm

A retired US Army general and the chairman of the US house foreign affairs committee have emerged as candidates to become US President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Seoul.

Retired US Army General James Thurman and outgoing Republican Representative Edward Royce are under consideration for the ambassadorship, two sources with knowledge of the matter told the South China Morning Post.

The pair emerged as candidates after the White House rejected presumptive nominee Victor Cha, a veteran Korean expert and former National Security Council official, because of his unwillingness to endorse a preliminary strike strategy on North Korea.  

Thurman, 64, was a member of US Vice President Mike Pence’s delegation to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea in early February. His presence was “a pretty good sign he is under consideration [for the ambassadorship],” according to one of the sources. 

The general served in South Korea as commander of United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, and United States Forces Korea from 2011 to 2013.

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Previously, he was a former commanding general at US Army Forces Command and deputy chief of staff at the US Defence Department. 

The 66-year-old Royce, chairman of the US house foreign affairs committee, was also among Pence’s delegation to Pyeongchang. He announced in January that he would not seek reelection in the US congressional midterm election in November. 

White House officials are “talking about” the pair, although no decision has been made yet, the other source said. 

After Trump on Thursday announced he would accept an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to meet by May, the US Korean policy circle began moving with greater urgency to fill important diplomatic vacancies to support communication with Pyongyang. 

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The Seoul US ambassador’s post has been vacant for more than a year. Joseph Yun, the US State Department’s top diplomat in charge of North Korean policy, also announced his retirement in late February.  

The Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow, Bruce Klingner, has urged the US government to “move quickly” to fill vacancies related to policymaking. 

“Trump should also appoint a senior envoy to coordinate US policy on North Korea and serve as a high-level interlocutor,” Klingner said. 

Gary Samore, executive director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, said Trump should appoint a senior envoy to represent him in negotiations with Pyongyang.  

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“That will be one of the most important next steps toward thwarting the global threat of a nuclearised North Korea,” said Samore, who was a senior adviser on weapons of mass destruction to former US president Barack Obama. 

“At this point,” Samore told the Post, “it looks like Trump has decided to be his own special envoy.” 

“We recognise the importance of designating an US ambassador to the Republic of Korea,” a spokesman at the State Department said in an email. 

“We are working closely with the White House team to expedite this nomination process.” 

Thurman told Newsweek magazine in December that the need for a US ambassador was “very critical” to US forces in South Korea. 

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“The linkage that the commander has with that ambassador is absolutely essential,” Thurman was quoted. “When something happened over there, the first guy I’d call was the ambassador.” 

That Thurman is under consideration shows Trump’s administration appears to prefer to designate former or current military officers as civilian diplomats. 

Trump in February nominated the current US Pacific commander, Admiral Harry Harris, to fill the role of US ambassador to Australia, which has been empty since September 2016. 

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Having an ambassador who understands both the Korean and US militaries would be very useful, one of the sources said, particularly if diplomacy proves ineffective and the US again has to consider taking military action against Pyongyang. 

“I'm sure Secretary of Defence James Mattis knows [Thurman] as well,” the source said.