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The State Department Is Losing Its Top North Korea Negotiator At The Worst Possible Time

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter

North Korea is offering to talk to the U.S., but the American diplomat best suited for such a task has suddenly decided to leave the Department of State.

Joseph Yun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea and Japan in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, will leave the State Department Friday. “This is my own personal decision,” he revealed to The Washington Post Monday night. “[Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson has told me he appreciates my service and did not want me to go, but he accepts it reluctantly.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert further confirmed Yun’s retirement in a series of tweets Tuesday.

“Joe Yun, a respected member of the Senior Foreign Service, has decided to retire for personal reasons, and the Secretary has reluctantly accepted his decision and wished him well,” she said on Twitter, adding, “We are sorry to see him retire, but our diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea will continue based on our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] until it agrees to begin credible talks toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.”

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The news of Yun’s decision broke just one day after North Korea expressed a willingness to engage the U.S. in dialogue.

North Korean Gen. Kim Yong Chol told South Korean President Moon Jae-in Sunday that Pyongyang is willing to talk to the U.S. The very next day, he stressed that his country’s door is always open.

Yun, a strong proponent of talks, is one of only a handful of American officials to have been in direct contact with North Korean officials and to have visited the North in recent years. He is believed to have been a key player in securing the release of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student who spent a year in detention in North Korea. While Yun managed to get Warmbier home, he was not able to save the young man’s life. He returned to the U.S. in a coma and died one week later.

The loss of Yun may complicate efforts by the Trump administration to achieve a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. As is, the president has also not yet nominated an ambassador to South Korea.

The Trump administration has repeatedly expressed a desire to resolve the tense situation in Korea peacefully and through diplomacy, but all options — including the use of military force — remain on the table. While Vice President Mike Pence has said that the U.S. is ready to talk, President Donald Trump has made it clear that the U.S. will only talk to North Korea under the right conditions.

The North insists that talks should occur without preconditions.

In the meantime, Washington will continue to advance the maximum pressure strategy, which involves crippling North Korea’s economy and isolating it diplomatically to force it to the table for a serious discussion about denuclearization.

“If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go phase two,” the president said Friday, adding, “And phase two may be a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world.”

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