SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, plans to retire on Friday, just as signs are emerging that Pyongyang may be willing to talk with Washington.
The South Korean-born Yun has led the U.S. outreach to North Korea, quietly pursuing direct diplomacy, since taking his post under former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2016.
But his authority to negotiate with North Korea appeared to be undercut by the tug-of-war between the White House and State Department over the direction of North Korea policy under President Donald Trump.
Yun, a 32-year foreign service veteran, traveled to North Korea last June to help secure the release of comatose American student Otto Warmbier, whose detention and subsequent death further soured relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
His departure comes amid glimmers of hope for a diplomatic opening between Pyongyang and Washington.
In the latest attempt to defuse the crisis over North Korea’s weapons program, South Korea urged Washington and Pyongyang to give ground to allow for talks, and U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday reiterated he would negotiate with North Korea, but only under the right conditions.
“Ambassador Joe Yun, a respected member of the Senior Foreign Service, has decided to retire for personal reasons,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “has reluctantly accepted his decision and wished him well,” she added.
Yun told CNN “it was completely my decision to retire at this time”, but he declined to comment to Reuters when asked in an email why he was leaving.
Serving under an administration often riven by divisions over how to handle Pyongyang, Yun has sought direct diplomacy with North Korean officials at the United Nations, a senior State Department official told Reuters late last year.
Despite the daunting obstacles, Yun told colleagues and others he hoped his diplomatic efforts would lower the temperature in a dangerous nuclear stand-off, according to Reuters interviews with current and former U.S. officials and South Korean diplomats late last year.
Most were deeply skeptical about his chances.
“He’s such a dreamer,” a White House official said at the time, with a note of sarcasm.
Many Korea observers lamented Yun’s departure at a time when relations between Pyongyang and Washington are at a nadir.
“He is a consummate diplomat. Thoughtful, experienced, knowledgeable, and effective,” former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark said of Yun on Twitter. “A huge loss for the U.S. government at a critical moment.”
South Korea’s foreign ministry said it had been aware that Yun planned to step down and said the South Korean government “highly appreciates Yun’s role while he was serving as U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy.”
Yun’s departure comes as Trump has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea, and the administration’s failure to fill that post and a number of other key foreign policy positions has brought criticism in Congress and among former U.S. official and experts.
Nauert said despite the shakeup “our diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea will continue based on our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the DPRK until it agrees to begin credible talks toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula.”