Senators Sound Alarm Over South Korea Ambassador Vacancy, Warn Of Significant Risk Of Preemptive Strike Against North Korea

Heinrich leads group of 18 senators questioning Dr. Victor Cha’s removal from consideration to be Ambassador; Raises concerns over “bloody nose” strategy against North Korea

WASHINGTON, D.C. -  Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, led a group of 18 Senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), expressing serious concerns over the continued absence of a U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and asked for justification on the reported removal from consideration of a highly qualified candidate, Dr. Victor Cha, for that position. The senators also warned against the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation.

In a letter to President Trump, the senators emphasized the urgent need for diplomatic leadership, stating, “The challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is perhaps the most significant foreign policy challenge our nation has faced in decades. It is therefore shocking that the Administration – a full year into its term – has yet to formally nominate someone to be the ambassador, which is the highest-ranking U.S. government official in South Korea. It is equally disturbing that the individual being considered for this position, Dr. Victor Cha, who has extensive qualifications and experience, has been removed from consideration after receiving Agrément from South Korea.”

The senators outlined Dr. Cha’s extensive vetting and qualifications and raised concern with reports that the reason for Dr. Cha’s removal was his disagreement with a “bloody nose” strategy under consideration by the White House, and called for the Administration to provide clear reasoning and justification for his removal from consideration.

“Like many, we are deeply concerned about the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation. Ultimately, it is an enormous gamble to believe that a particular type of limited, preemptive strike will not be met with an escalatory response from Kim Jong Un and neither the United States nor our allies should take that step lightly,” continued the senators. 

In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on North Korea on January 30, 2018, each of the expert witnesses believed that such a “bloody nose” strategy carried extreme risks. Last month, Senator Heinrich sent a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattisexpressing his deep concerns regarding the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation.

On January 30th, Dr. Victor Cha, posted an Op-Ed in the Washington Post arguing that “Giving North Korea a ‘bloody nose’ carries a huge risk to Americans.”

The letter was signed by U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jeffrey Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).   

A copy of letter is available here and below. 

President Donald Trump
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500 

Dear President Trump: 

We write to express our serious concerns regarding the continued absence of a U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and the reported removal from consideration of a highly qualified candidate, Dr. Victor Cha, for that position. We ask that you provide clear reasoning and justification for his removal from consideration.

The challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is perhaps the most significant foreign policy challenge our nation has faced in decades. It is therefore shocking that the Administration – a full year into its term – has yet to formally nominate someone to be the ambassador, which is the highest-ranking U.S. government official in South Korea. It is equally disturbing that the individual being considered for this position, Dr. Victor Cha, who has extensive qualifications and experience, has been removed from consideration after receiving Agrément from South Korea.

We may or may not agree with Dr. Cha on every issue, and of course an administration is entitled to the nominees of its choosing, but it is our understanding that the White House conducted lengthy vetting, including security and financial background checks on Dr. Cha and that the Administration had formally notified Seoul of its intent to nominate Dr. Cha. According to reports, South Korean officials quickly approved Dr. Cha through its formal process and South Koreans lauded his potential nomination.

While we reserve our rights to provide advice and consent on ambassadorial nominations, it is our understanding that he is an eminently qualified individual to serve at a senior level in the U.S. Government. As you know, Dr. Cha previously served as director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration. Dr. Cha also served as the Deputy Head of Delegation for the United States at the Six Party Talks in Beijing. Currently, Dr. Cha is the Director of Asian Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and is also a Senior Adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Despite Dr. Cha’s qualifications, it is being reported that Administration officials are asserting that the removal of Dr. Cha from consideration was based on a flag that was raised only after the lengthy background checks and other vetting that, typically, an individual under consideration for nomination undergoes prior to their name being submitted for the formal diplomatic process of Agrément. As a result, we respectfully request that you provide the justification for his removal from consideration.

According to some media reports, the real reason for Dr. Cha’s removal was his disagreement with a “bloody nose” strategy under consideration by the White House. Like many, we are deeply concerned about the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation. Ultimately, it is an enormous gamble to believe that a particular type of limited, preemptive strike will not be met with an escalatory response from Kim Jong Un and neither the United States nor our allies should take that step lightly. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on North Korea on January 30th, 2018, each of the expert witnesses believed that such a “bloody nose” strategy carried extreme risks. Moreover, without congressional authorization a preventative or preemptive U.S. military strike would lack either a Constitutional basis or legal authority.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are as high as they have ever been, and the Olympics are fast approaching. While we must always be ready to respond with decisive action to a North Korean provocation, it would be extremely irresponsible to instigate military conflict prior to exhausting every diplomatic option.

We request your immediate attention to ensure the United States has in place its highest-ranking diplomat to serve as Ambassador to South Korea. We urge you to nominate a qualified individual for this critical position as soon as possible. 

Sincerely,