America’s special envoy to North Korea is set to resign this week, amid speculation he had grown frustrated with Donald Trump‘s tough stance towards Pyongyang.
The departure of South Korean-born Joseph Yun, a strong advocate for engagement with the North, was described as “exceptionally bad news” by experts who predicted his exit could lead to a deterioration of relations.
He said his decision to leave was entirely his own, but his retirement comes at a surprising juncture, after North Korea expressed a willingness for formal diplomatic talks with Washington.
Mr Yun took the post under Barack Obama in 2016 and has quietly retained contact with Pyongyang during a turbulent year of threats, insults and growing tensions after Mr Trump was elected.
The diplomat’s departure leaves the State Department without a point person for North Korean policy at what South Korean officials described as a “critical moment”.
Pyongyang is said to have signalled it may be willing to talk to the US after a period of diplomatic contacts with South Korea during the Winter Olympics.
Mr Trump again reiterated this week, that he would only hold talks under the right conditions.
Washington has said repeatedly that any formal contact must be aimed at North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, something the secretive communist state has rejected.
One South Korean official said Mr Yun had “run out of steam” amid a tug-of-war between the White House, which wants to apply maximum pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme and the US State Department, which has supported Seoul’s efforts to re-engage with Pyongyang.
“He was sceptical and wary of the White House’s hardline approach toward North Korea from the beginning,” another official told the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.
While Mr Yun’s tenure was praised publicly by the State Department, one senior administration official said he would not be missed because he contradicted the President’s policies.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders brushed off questions about the impact of the envoy’s departure.
Mr Yun, a 32-year foreign service veteran, told US media his retirement was a personal decision and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had tried to persuade him to stay.
“It is really my decision. The time, I thought, was right,” he told CBS News. “There is a bit of a lull in activity and I thought it would be a good [time] to get out.”
He noted North Korea had “stopped nuclear and missile tests”.
However, Pyongyang conducted its biggest and most recent nuclear bomb test in September and its largest and latest missile test in late November.
Mr Yun’s departure leaves vacant another key position tasked with dealing with the North’s nuclear and missile threats. Mr Trump has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea, a post empty for over a year.
Congress, former US officials and foreign policy experts have criticised the administration’s failure to fill the position.
“It’s regrettable that Mr Yun is leaving at this critical moment. It could also have policy implications and a message to Pyongyang,” a third South Korean official said.
Analysts said Mr Yun’s departure was blow to attempts to use diplomacy to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States. has raised fears of war.
“This is exceptionally bad news,” Frank Jannuzi, an East Asia expert who heads the Mansfield Foundation, said on Twitter. “Joe Yun is the only senior official left at State who has experience dealing with the complexities of North Korea policy.”
Abraham Denmark, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for East Asia, called Mr Yun’s departure “a huge loss for the US government at a critical moment.”
Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert in US foreign policy and nuclear non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “Although U.S. strategy is supposedly maximum pressure and engagement, Joe Yun was the only one seriously trying engagement.
“He is joining a large exodus of senior State Department officials who will be hard to replace.”
The State Department said Mr Tillerson had “reluctantly accepted” Mr Yun’s resignation.
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert added the denuclearisation of North Korea remained the top US national security priority and Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign to bring that about was succeeding.
“If someone chooses to retire, that does not change our policy,” she added. “I feel fully confident we have the appropriate people in place who can handle everything he did and more.”
South Korea this week urged Washington and Pyongyang to give ground to allow for talks, but Mr Trump reiterated his willingness to talk, but only under the right conditions.
Mr Yun told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency he was “very hopeful about talks.”
“I hope there is a good dialogue, there is a peaceful resolution,” he said.
Last week Washington announced its largest package of sanctions yet on North Korea. Mr Trump warned of a “phase two” that could be “very, very unfortunate for the world” if the steps did not work, an apparent reference to military options his administration says remain on the table.
However, North Korea’s envoy to the UN Conference on Disarmament, Han Tae Song, this week dismissed sanctions as ineffective and said plans by Seoul and Washington to resume joint military exercises would harm “the current positive process of improved inter-Korean relations.”
A senior State Department official said late last year that Mr Yun had sought direct diplomacy with North Korean officials at the United Nations in the hope of easing US-North Korean tensions.
Most were deeply sceptical about his chances.
“He’s such a dreamer,” a White House official said at the time, with a note of sarcasm.
Mr Yun travelled to North Korea last June to help secure the release of comatose American student Otto Warmbier, whose detention and subsequent death further soured relations.
Additional reporting by agencies