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Opinion Pompeo planning to switch Australia ambassador nominee to South Korea

Adm. Harry Harris testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on “Military Assessment of the Security Challenges in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region” on Capitol Hill in Washington in April 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
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During his confirmation hearing to become secretary of state, CIA Director Mike Pompeo promised to fill the role of U.S. ambassador to South Korea quickly. Now he plans to pull the nomination of President Trump’s proposed ambassador to Australia and move that nominee to the position in Seoul.

A senior White House official confirmed to me that the administration is planning to re-nominate Adm. Harry Harris, the current head of U.S. Pacific Command, as Trump’s envoy to South Korea. Harris was nominated to be Trump’s representative in Canberra in February, and the Australian government had approved the choice. But late Monday, the administration asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to postpone his confirmation hearing, which had been scheduled for Tuesday morning.

Harris has already told Pompeo he is willing to switch roles and serve in South Korea, the White House official said. An announcement is pending final approval from the president, which is expected to come shortly.

Multiple administration officials told me Pompeo wants to move Harris to Seoul due to the urgency of filling that vacancy. For the past 16 months, Charge d’Affaires Mark Knapper has been leading the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, ably by all accounts. Nevertheless, Trump has faced criticism for not nominating his own ambassador to Seoul as the administration ramps up its North Korea engagement ahead of a possible summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Harris is a well-respected official with decades of experience who holds the confidence of senators in both parties. But confirming him will still take time. In addition to a new round of internal vetting, Senate Democrats may see the nomination as an opportunity to press the administration for details on its North Korea strategy, and especially on its contingency plans if diplomacy fails.

Harris had been planning to retire this year, but he accepted the Australia posting in part due to his deep experience and interest in U.S.-Australia relations. He has less experience dealing with South Korea and a scanty record of diplomatic involvement with North Korea. Harris has visited South Korea many times in his various military jobs over the years. (U.S. Forces Korea is a part of Pacific Command.)

The White House was planning to nominate Korea hand and former George W. Bush National Security Council official Victor Cha to be U.S. ambassador to Seoul. But the White House changed its mind after months of vetting Cha, for reasons that remain unclear.

Some on Capitol Hill see Pompeo’s move as potentially harming the otherwise warming U.S.-Australia relationship by making the Australian government seem like a second-class ally. Now, Canberra will have to go to the back of the line and wait much longer for a Trump administration ambassador.

“Both Canberra and Seoul are critical posts,” a congressional aide said. “And while Admiral Harris would be a capable, talented and effective nominee for either post, the process by which the administration has handled the nominations for our ambassadors to Korea and now Australia, as well as countless other empty and important positions at State, risks doing grave damage to vital alliance relationships and U.S. posture and standing throughout the region.”

Other names that had been reported as under consideration for the Seoul job were former U.S. Forces Korea commander retired Gen. J.D. Thurman, who joined Vice President Mike Pence’s delegation at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who is retiring.

The Chinese government may also view Harris’s posting to Seoul with concern. He coined the term “Great Wall of Sand,” a scathing reference to Chinese militarization of rocks, reefs and submerged shoals in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Chinese news media have been attacking Harris for years, often accusing him of being Japanese, in order to question his motivations. In fact, Harris’s mother was Japanese, and his father was a U.S. Navy chief petty officer stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.

Pompeo is right to fill the job of U.S. ambassador to South Korea quickly, and Harris is a solid choice. But it would be nice if Pompeo could improve relations with one ally without harming relations with another. The North Korea crisis is a short-term emergency, but strengthening regional alliances to deal with China’s rise is the long-term challenge.

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