Seventeen months into his presidency, Donald Trump has finally announced his intention to nominate a US ambassador to South Korea. With just under a month before a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it’s about time.
Late Friday afternoon, the White House issued a statement naming Adm. Harry Harris as Trump’s pick to be the ambassador to South Korea. Harris, a Naval officer, is currently the commander of US Pacific Command and had already planned to retire from the military this month.
Harris is widely respected in Congress and, barring some unforeseen circumstance, would likely fly through a Senate confirmation. Indeed, Trump had already nominated Harris to be US ambassador to Australia in February, but his Senate confirmation hearing in April was suddenly postponed at the request of the White House. As CNN reported at the time, sources said this was because Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had proposed switching him to US ambassador to South Korea instead.
If Harris is able to get confirmed quickly, Harris could possibly be in place before Trump attends the June 12 meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. That’s really important: Harris will be one of Trump’s top advisers on the situation on the Korean Peninsula, serving as an interlocutor between Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang. Harris could serve as a crucial administration voice on any future diplomatic agreements with North Korea.
But Trump is definitely cutting it pretty close. As my colleague Zack Beauchamp pointed out last year, the Trump administration has been “flying blind on North Korea” without a South Korea ambassador.
Harris is seen as someone who has good relationships in the Pacific region and understands the complex security dynamics there. But he’s known as a staunch China critic, and he could also weigh in on future trade negotiations with Beijing.
More crucially for his likely new role, Harris has thought deeply about North Korea. In March, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Trump should go “eyes wide open” into the summit with Kim, warning the administration not to be too optimistic about a positive outcome.
And, of course, he’s thought about the threat North Korea poses, which he considers to be the biggest regional security problem.
“Many people have talked about military options being unimaginable regarding North Korea,” Harris told a group at the Chamber of Commerce earlier this year. “Folks, I must imagine the unimaginable. And what is unimaginable to me are North Korean nuclear-tipped missiles delivered here in Honolulu, or in Los Angeles, or in New York or Washington, DC.”
Harris’s goal — should he become America’s lead diplomat in South Korea — is to make sure something like that never happens.