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America is flying blind on North Korea

north korea kim jong un KNS/AFP/Getty Images (KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

The situation in the Korean Peninsula is getting pretty scary. North Korea just tested a missile that, in theory, could deliver a nuke to Washington, DC. The US is flying advanced B-1B bombers over South Korea to signal strength. Sen. Lindsey Graham said the president told him he was willing to go to war with North Korea to stop their missile program if necessary because “if thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”

This is a situation in which you want smart, levelheaded people in the top Korea-related posts in the US government. You want leading subject matter experts running Asia policy in the Departments of State and Defense, and someone who knows the South Korean government well serving as ambassador in Seoul.

Yet in the Trump administration, those positions remain vacant. There is no assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the State Department. There is no assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department. And there is no US ambassador to South Korea.

In fact, no one has even been nominated to these positions. There was a rumor that widely respected Georgetown professor Victor Cha was tapped to be ambassador, but that still has yet to be confirmed.

So this isn’t the Senate’s fault for failing to confirm qualified Trump picks; it’s that the White House can’t even get its act together to get people into top posts. With top agency positions vacant, the United States has to rely on the Trump White House alone to think through a response to North Korea. That’s a worrisome prospect.

“It's clear that President Trump does not understand North Korea or the complexity of the situation,” Jenny Town, the assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, tells me via email. “Until Trump takes this issue seriously ... the situation will continue to deteriorate.”

Why vacancies matter

Donald Trump Awards Medal Of Honor To Vietnam War Veteran James C. McCloughan (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Assistant regional secretaries play a very important role in policymaking. They bring their expertise on high-level policy decisions about the countries they cover — in this case, North Korea and the rest of East Asia. They also make sure that the resources of the departments they work in are being used to support the president’s decisions and provide him with the best possible options for, say, dealing with a North Korean missile test.

The ambassador to South Korea also plays a vital role, representing Washington’s interests to Seoul and getting insight into South Korean policy that can be useful in helping the president make decisions.

In short, these three open positions play a vital role in helping make sure that American policy is informed and well thought out. And right now, nobody is in them.

As long as the positions are vacant, career staff at Defense and State will try to fill the void. The problem is that they don’t have the same relationship with the White House as someone handpicked by the president or his top staff, and thus have don’t have the same sway over policy.

“The lack of staffing in whole regions where we have major problems, where you would really like to have a political appointee who can take directions from the White House, [is troubling],” says Elizabeth Saunders, a professor at George Washington University who studies American foreign policy.

“The career people are terrific — this is not to impugn them at all,” she adds, “but there’s a reason why you want to have a political appointee who can actually articulate what the administration’s policy is.”

Moreover, career officials who are filling in have a lot of difficulty reaching final decisions on policy recommendations — because they are, by definition, only in charge of that decision temporarily. Getting people into top positions is necessary to start giving the policy process a sense of permanence and direction.

“The career people are carrying it pretty well, but we need to reach some decisions now,” Herman Cohen, who served as assistant secretary of state for Africa under George H.W. Bush, tells me. “It’s a big problem.”

The White House’s general approach to North Korea, a senior White House official tells me, is “to work with allies and partners to apply maximum diplomatic and economic pressure to convince North Korea to change course.”

To make this general framework actually succeed in practice, a thousand smaller decisions need to be made. What are US policy options for putting economic pressure on North Korea? Would North Korea respond to new sanctions with military provocations? What would it take to get key allies, most importantly South Korea, on board with any new US policies?

Assistant secretaries and the ambassador to South Korea should play a vital role in answering these questions. Without good answers to these questions, grounded in the best information available to the experts at Defense and State, it’s much harder for the president and his top aides — none of whom are Korea experts — to make good policy.

North Korea’s missile program is clearly advancing rapidly. How can the Trump administration implement a smart policy response in time if it doesn’t even have the people who are supposed to come up with one?