Updated at 5:46 p.m. ET
There is no U.S. ambassador to South Korea. The U.S. diplomat in charge of negotiations with North Korea recently quit—and no replacement has yet been named. The State Department official in charge of East Asian affairs is a career diplomat who is serving in an acting capacity. So if North Korea does end up talking with the U.S., as the South says it’s offered to, whom exactly would they talk with?
“We have plenty of people who are more than qualified to have these types of conversations with the White House and also the Republic of Korea, our ally,” Heather Nauert, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, said Tuesday.
Those officials include Susan Thornton, a career foreign-service officer who is the State Department’s senior-most official on East Asian affairs, and who is the administration’s nominee to permanently take the job she has been doing since the end of the Obama administration; Marc Knapper, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Seoul; and Mark Lambert, the State Department’s director for Korea policy.
But the question remains of whether the U.S. has the bench strength needed to negotiate directly with North Korea—should such talks actually begin. Joseph Yun, the senior-most official who was in semiregular meetings with North Korean officials, announced late last month that he was retiring. His departure underscored the shortage of current U.S. officials who have ever met with a North Korean representative. Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, told me in an interview on Tuesday that it is uncertain “whether or not the United States has the capacity to engage in a major diplomatic effort with the North Koreans.”