The rising tensions between President Trump and the missile-launching government of North Korea are playing out with a State Department that continues to operate with corridors of unfilled leadership jobs.
The Trump White House has made only a third of the nominations needed to fill 130 key jobs at the department, according to a tracking tool from the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post. Of the 44 nominees, 23 have been confirmed, leaving State with only 8 percent of top positions filled. Missing are a permanent assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, an undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs, and a confirmed ambassador to South Korea.
“We have a lot of open slots,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged to reporters on Aug. 1. “I don’t have but one undersecretary position filled, and that’s [Undersecretary for Political Affairs] Ambassador Tom Shannon. But we’ve been dealing with a lot; we’ve accomplished a lot, and we continue to progress a lot because there are remarkable, talented, professional Foreign Service officers in this building. And every one of them has stepped up and not a one of them has said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ ”
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This week’s unfolding clash has prompted Tillerson to balance the “fire and fury” rhetoric of presidential tweets with a statement, “I think Americans should sleep well at night.”
Acting to lead the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs is career diplomat Susan Thornton, while the Seoul embassy is being run by Charge d’Affairs Marc Knapper. Thornton was given the acting slot in March after serving under the Obama administration as principal deputy assistant secretary.
A State Department spokesman responded to Government Executive queries by referring to statements from Tillerson and an Aug. 9 comment from the department’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert. When reporters asked about when a new ambassador to South Korea would be named, she said, “A nomination would have to come out of the White House because it’s – the president has that right to be able to nominate someone….. I can, however, tell you that we have a charge d’affaires who’s currently serving there. Mark Knapper is …a senior Foreign Service officer. He has a ton of experience in Korea. He’s served at the embassy in Seoul since 2015. He has served other tours of duty in Korea as well at our embassy in Seoul. I’ve talked to people around the building about him. They love him… I’m confident that it is in good, solid hands until the president nominates somebody for that position.”
State’s policy toward the Koreas is also being influenced by two deputy assistant secretaries in East Asian and Pacific Affairs: Joseph Yun, the special representative of North Korea Policy, and Matthew Matthews, deputy assistant secretary for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
A deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration, Michael Fuchs, told Government Executive on Friday that “the lack of senior leadership appointed by the Trump administration in key positions throughout the government is a massive obstacle to implementing effective policy, but especially when it comes to crises like North Korea.”
Fuchs said he sees acting officials Thornton and Knapper as first-rate diplomats and seasoned professionals with good expertise in the region. “We have very capable career Foreign Service officers acting as senior officials in the building,” he said. “But they don’t have the political backing of the White House, and having been confirmed by the Senate. And they don’t have the personal and political relationships that come with being a White House-nominated, Senate-confirmed, empowered appointee.”
Korean peninsula analyst Harry Krejsa, the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for New American Security, said: “The outstanding number of vacancies throughout the diplomatic and national security apparatus has been really worrying to foreign policy analysts. These are the folks who are the implementers and interpreters of policy and the informers of policy. So far, it looks like the administration is trying to do all three from the White House, creating a lot of incoherence across agencies, and confusion among allies."
Tillerson—whom news reports have said has been fighting with the White House over approval of certain nominees—has also cited his ongoing reorganization effort at State as a reason for delayed appointments. At his Aug. 1 presser, the secretary said, “The redesign of the State Department is an employee-led effort. Unlike some of the other departments in response to [Trump’s executive order on governmentwide reorganization], I have elected not to impose a top-down answer on the organization. I’m using approaches that I have used in my past that have been successful. And we are creating an employee-led effort to redesign the State Department.”
Krejsa said, “This supposed reorganization should not be used as excuse to delay filing crucial posts. However the secretary decides it should look like a year from now, it likely will still have bureaus on Asia and Pacific affairs. He’s going to need someone in those positions.”
“The slow nomination and confirmation of political appointees at the State Department has had a demoralizing effect on our diplomatic corps, and created problems for both the management of the department and for carrying out President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “Filling [the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs position] and numerous other critical State Department leadership jobs should be a top White House priority.”
News outlets have reported speculation on who will be the next ambassador to Seoul—one possibility is Georgetown University Korea expert Victor Cha. The bureau chief for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, some observers say, could go not to Thornton but to Olin Wethington, a former Treasury Department official now a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.