One of America’s top diplomats in charge of North Korea policy has announced his abrupt retirement, leading to fears of a dearth of expertise at a crucial time in Washington’s relations with Pyongyang.
Joseph Yun, who is in his early sixties, told CNN that his resignation was “completely my decision”. The state department confirmed that it had been for personal reasons and that secretary of state Rex Tillerson had accepted it “with regret”.
Mr Yun’s sudden departure adds to uncertainty over the Trump administration’s policy towards Pyongyang, which has started to engage with Seoul for the first time in years, and which indicated at the weekend that the door was open for dialogue with Washington.
The Winter Olympics, where athletes from the North and South marched under a joint flag at the opening and closing ceremonies, has been widely credited for forging a diplomatic détente between the two countries, who are still technically at war.
Officials from both sides met again on Tuesday to discuss whether the rapprochement could continue during the Paralympic Games which will be held from March 9-18.
It would be North Korea’s first ever attendance at a Winter Paralympics. Only two athletes, both para skiers, have been invited to take part, but Pyongyang said already last month that it would like to send a 150-strong delegation, including cheerleaders and support staff.
The question of whether talks between the two countries can widen into international negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programmes remains open, and would have been at the top of Mr Yun’s in-tray if he was staying on.
The State Department said that while it was sorry to see him go, that “our diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea will continue based on our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) until it agrees to begin credible talks toward a denuclearised peninsula.”
His decision to retire has been met with surprise. Only last month, Mr Yun was in South Korea and Japan to speak with senior government officials about North Korea issues. He was also instrumental in bringing detained US student, Otto Warmbier, home from Pyongyang before he died.
“I think this is a huge loss for the US government at a critical moment,” Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told CNN.
“He was a great advocate for dialogue and for diplomacy, and I think it’s unfortunate that his voice will no longer be in the conversation inside the US government,” he said.
The resignation comes during mixed signals from the White House over whether to respond to North Korea diplomatically or to pursue a so-called “bloody nose” military strategy.
The gap left by Mr Yun will add to fears that the US lacks top diplomats capable of handling fraught relations with Pyongyang.
The White House has yet to appoint an ambassador to Seoul. The rumoured favourite for the job, Victor Cha, a former national foreign policy advisor, appeared to fall out of the race in January.
In an opinion article for the Washington Post, Mr Cha expressed opposition to the administration’s consideration of limited military action.
“This is the time where we need diplomats and Victor Cha is not there, Joseph Yun after Friday is not there,” said Mr Denmark. “There are still several terrific diplomats in place but we need their voices to be prominent.’