Trump left to face North Korea crisis without key diplomat

WASHINGTON — At roughly the same time President Donald Trump was laying out his administration’s North Korea policy in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, South Korean and U.S. officials in Seoul were waking up to the news that the administration’s long-awaited choice for ambassador, Victor Cha, had withdrawn himself from consideration.

One top U.S. official said embassy staff learned through news reports that their embassy would remain without a top envoy, raising concern that the critical strategic post will remain empty for the foreseeable future.

Now, as the U.S. and its allies look to ramp up pressure against Pyongyang while avoiding military conflict, the prolonged — and now indefinite — vacancy of the job of ambassador to Seoul is raising concern that any hope for a diplomatic solution to the standoff with North Korea is diminishing.

RELATED: Key moments in 2017 between the US and North Korea

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Key moments in 2017 between US and North Korea
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Key moments in 2017 between US and North Korea

NEW YEARS DAY MISSILE LAUNCH

On January 1, 2017, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un warned that an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was in the 'final stages' of development.

The nation said it could conduct a missile test-launch 'anytime and anywhere'.

On February 12, North Korea tested a ballistic missile, but it didn't appear to be an ICBM due to its flight range.

NUCLEAR CRISIS AT MAR-A-LAGO

President Trump was at his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago having dinner with Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe when news broke that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile on February 12.

The president sparked controversy by reportedly discussing the event in front of Mar-a-Lago diners while continuing his meal with the Japanese leader and other guests. 

'MERCILESS' STRIKES

On March 5, North Korea sent an inflammatory message to the U.S. by firing four ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan.

The U.S. deployed an anti-missile system in South Korea the following day.

In response, North Korea warned of 'merciless' strikes against the U.S.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said military action against Pyongyang was 'on the table' and Trump tweeted that the nation is 'behaving very badly.'

COVERT PHOTO OF TILLERSON

During a visit to North Korea's border on March 17, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was unwittingly photographed by a North Korean soldier, who can be seen peering into the room on the right side of the image.

The next day, Rex Tillerson said the threat of North Korea is 'imminent.'

BOLD MISSILE STRIKE

North Korea tested another ballistic missile shortly before President Trump's planned meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 5.

Rex Tillerson responded by saying the U.S. 'has spoken enough.' Trump later said the nation 'is looking for trouble.'

The U.S. military warned it was 'prepared to launch a preemptive strike' against North Korea if there were signs the country was planning to test a nuclear weapon.

POLL SHOWS US CONCERNS

A poll conducted by CBS News in April showed that more than half of Americans said they were 'uneasy' about President Trump's ability to deal with North Korea.

FAILED MISSILE TEST

North Korea celebrated the 105th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth, North Korea's founder, by unveiling powerful new missiles in April.

The next day, a North Korean missile 'blew up' just a few hours before Vice President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea for a diplomatic trip.

TENSE BACK-AND-FORTH

On April 27, North Korea released a video showing a simulation of a White House attack. 

President Trump responded by saying a 'major, major conflict' with North Korea was 'absolutely' possible.

The next day, Pyongyang unsuccessfully test-fired another ballistic missile in an act of bold defiance against international pressure to curb its nuclear program.

'PRETTY SMART COOKIE'

President Trump called North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un 'a pretty smart cookie' in an interview that went viral on April 30.

'At a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I'm sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie,' Trump told CBS News.

The president also said he'd be 'honored' to meet with the North Korean leader.

KIM JONG UN'S LETTER TO CONGRESS

In early May, North Korea said it would continue its nuclear weapons tests and boost force 'to the maximum' in a stark warning to the U.S.

Pyongyang also condemned President Trump for directing the peninsula to the 'brink of nuclear war.'

Soon after, North Korea sent a rare letter to the U.S. House of Representatives to protest tougher sanctions on the nation.

TRUMP GETS HEAT AT HOME

In Washington, Trump was met with criticism from several lawmakers over his handling of North Korea.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sounded off on the issue, saying Trump 'can't meet with Kim Jong Un' as he'd discussed.

MISSILE TEST CONFIRMS ADVANCEMENT

On May 13, North Korea carried out another ballistic missile test-launch, which landed in the sea near Russia.

Pyongyang said the launch was aimed at confirming the country could carry large nuclear warheads, signaling an advancement in their development.

'MADMAN' LEAK

In late May, a transcript of a phone call between President Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was leaked to the public.

The transcript showed President Trump call North Korea's leader a 'madman with nuclear weapons' who could not be let on the loose.

'BIGGER GIFT PACKAGE' FOR US

As tensions continued to ramp up in May, North Korea launched another ballistic missile test and warned the U.S. of a 'bigger gift package' in the future.

The U.S. responded by issuing new sanctions on Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, experts cautioned that the U.S. 'may not be able to stop' the threat of North Korean nuclear missiles.

US PREPARES FOR NUCLEAR THREAT

Several states began to carry out nuclear attack drills to prepare for potential threats.

New York City set up a triage simulation at MetLife Stadium and Hawaii's government called for school evacuation drills.

DENNIS RODMAN VISITS PYONGYANG

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea in June.

'I'm just trying to open the door,' he told reporters. 'My purpose is to actually to see if I can keep bringing sports to North Korea, so that's the main thing.'

OTTO WARMBIER

Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was released from North Korean custody on June 13.

Warmbier had been imprisoned in North Korea since early 2016 after he was accused of trying to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel while visiting the country as a tourist.

After the announcement of his release, Warmbier was photographed comatose and being carried off a plane with a tube in his nose. It was discovered that he had been in a coma for the past year.

North Korean officials said he got botulism and was given a sleeping pill, but never woke up.

Warmbier's father said his son suffered a serious neurological injury was 'brutalized.'

Otto Warmbier died on June 19 from lack of oxygen and blood to the brain, according to a U.S. coroner.

TRADING INSULTS

President Trump tweeted in June that diplomacy 'has not worked out' with North Korea, suggesting a potential change in policy.

Pyongyang called Trump a 'psychopath' two days later.

SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH OF ICBM

On July 4, North Korea successfully test-launched an ICBM for the first time ever. The missile flew a trajectory that could hit Alaska.

President Trump responded via Twitter: 'North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?...'

The president later vowed to 'confront very strongly' the issue of North Korea's 'very, very bad behavior.'

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said North Korea's actions were 'quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution' and that the United States was prepared to use force 'if we must.'

'PILE OF ASH'

In a bold statement, North Korea threatened to turn the U.S. into a 'pile of ash' on July 12.

US THREATENED WITH 'MERCILESS BLOW'

On July 27, a North Korean spokesperson said, 'Should the U.S. dare to show even the slightest sign of attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow at the heart of the U.S. with our powerful nuclear hammer, honed and hardened over time.'

The following day, North Korea fired a missile in an unusual late-night test-launch.

MISSILE LAUNCH BROKE RECORD

The Pentagon reported that North Korea's latest ICBM launch on July 28 was the longest test in their history.

The U.S. responded by successfully test-launching an ICBM  from California.

The U.S. also issued a ban on American passport holders traveling to North Korea that took effect on September 1.

TRUMP WARNS OF 'FIRE AND FURY'

In early August, President Trump warned that North Korea would be met with 'fire and fury' if it continued to threaten the United States.

In response, North Korea said it was considering a missile strike on the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

POLL SHOWS US VIEW OF THREAT

A CNN poll in August showed that most Americans saw North Korea as a 'very serious threat' at that point.

US TOLD TO 'ACT PROPERLY'

President Trump said the U.S. military was 'locked and loaded' in a series of new threats against Pyongyang.

North Korea responded by saying, 'If the Trump administration does not want the American empire to meet its tragic doom..., they had better talk and act properly.'

MISSILE FLIES NEAR JAPAN

On August 29, North Korea fired a missile over Japan that landed in waters near the country, marking a major escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.

After the missile launch, President Trump said 'all options are on the table.'

'ASHES AND DARKNESS'

After Pyongyang conducted its biggest missile test to date on August 29, one of its top diplomats said it was ready to send 'more gift packages' to the United States.

North Korea later threatened to 'sink' Japan and reduce the United States to 'ashes and darkness.'

On September 15, North Korea carried out another missile test-launch.

'ROCKET MAN'

President Trump called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un 'rocket man' twice, first during an address before the U.N. General Assembly in September and again on Twitter:

'I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing. Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad!'

Trump claimed the nickname was meant to be a compliment.

'DOTARD'

Kim Jong Un called President Trump 'mentally deranged' and said he would 'totally destroy' the U.S. after he was dubbed 'rocket man' in a U.N. speech.

The North Korean leader also slammed President Trump as 'a frightened dog,' a 'dotard' and  'gangster fond of playing with fire' in a statement released on September 22.

TRUMP VISITS ASIA

President Trump brought up North Korea during a trip to Japan in November, saying 'no dictator' should underestimate the U.S.

Trump's planned visit to the DMZ was canceled due to weather.

TRUMP CALLED 'OLD' BY KIM JONG UN

On November 11, President Trump posted a tweet:

'Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!'

NOVEMBER MISSILE LAUNCH

North Korea fired what is believed to be an ICBM on November 28 that landed near Japan.

Trump responded by saying, 'It is a situation that we will handle.'

A North Korean official said the U.S. was 'begging for nuclear war' and participating in an 'extremely dangerous nuclear gamble.'

MORE ON NORTH KOREA

1. Kim Jong Un just had another baby

2. Meet North Korea's secret 'princess'

3. South Korea to create a 'decapitation unit' for Kim Jong Un

4. Kim Jong Un's half-brother murdered in attack at Malaysian airport

5. Study shows most Americans can't identify North Korea on a map

On December 20, it was reported that North Korea is testing whether its ICBM weapons are capable of carrying anthrax.
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A senior administration official confirmed to NBC News that Cha withdrew from consideration after disagreeing with the administration about its approach to the North Korean crisis. A second senior administration official and a third person close to the decision tells NBC News that South Korea’s government had been informed that Cha was to be nominated as ambassador and he had received his clearances — but then some of his policy positions upset the White House.

A senior White House official confirmed that Cha had withdrawn from consideration and wished him well, but said the policy disagreements have been mischaracterized in the media. The official did not elaborate.

Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, penned an editorial for The Washington Post, which first reported that he had withdrawn from consideration. In it, he said that with regard to confronting North Korea, "the answer is not, as some Trump administration officials have suggested, a preventive military strike."

"To be clear," Cha continued, "(t)he president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power."

Cha did not respond to a request for comment.

Viewed as a pre-eminent expert by professionals in both parties, Cha previously served in former President George W. Bush’s national security council. His withdrawal as the ambassadorial nominee to Seoul was dropped just days before South Korea hosts the Winter Olympics.

The State Department said Wednesday that it is confident South Korea will host the Olympics without incident and that Cha’s withdrawal has no impact on the event.

"South Korea understands we have not yet nominated, that the White House has not yet nominated an ambassador, that the White House will do so when it has a candidate that they are willing — that they are able to put forward," said Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. "The fact that we do not have an ambassador in place has not impacted the security planning for the Olympic games on behalf of the United States and for South Korea."

And while the U.S. embassy in Seoul is operating business as usual, the appointment of an ambassador is symbolically important, particularly amid increasing tensions between Washington and Seoul. South Korea’s liberal President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly advocated for engaging with North Korea directly, while the White House has pushed back on the idea, saying that Pyongyang needs to make a compelling effort to dismantle its nuclear program before direct diplomatic efforts can resume.

Following talks between North and South Korea, Pyongyang agreed to send 22 athletes to the Winter Games, which begin on Feb. 8, as well as a music and dance troupe. But the plans are fragile, as is evident from North Korea’s decision this week to cancel a joint cultural event with South Korea, blaming "insulting" media coverage by the South Korean press.

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that efforts to deter North Korea’s nuclear advancements had reached "a very tenuous stage."

"We have to recognize that that threat is growing and if North Korea does not choose the pathway of engagement, of discussion, negotiations, then they themselves will trigger an option," Tillerson said, shortly before North Korea resumed talks with Seoul on joining next month’s Olympic Games.

RELATED: A look at South Korea's plans for the 2018 Olympics

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South Korea plans for 2018 Olympics
An ice sculpture of the Olympic rings is seen during the Pyeongchang Winter Festival, near the venue for the opening and closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
The Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre is seen in Pyeongchang, South Korea, October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
The Olympic Plaza, the venue for the opening and closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, is seen in Pyeongchang, South Korea, October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A man walks past the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics mascot Soohorang and Paralympics mascot Bandabi at Phoenix Snow Park, the venue for Parallel Giant Slalom, Slopestyle, Moguls and Aerials, in Pyeongchang, South Korea, October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Images of former winter olympic mascots are displayed on the wall of a house in the town on Hoenggye near the venue of the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic games, in Pyeongchang on October 31, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows the biathlon venue of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic games near the Alpensia resort in Pyeongchang on October 31, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 30, 2017: A view of Alpensia Ski Jumping Stadium that is to host ski jumping events during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Stanislav Varivoda/TASS (Photo by Stanislav Varivoda\TASS via Getty Images)
An aerial photo shows a general view of the bobsleigh and luge venues of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic games in Pyeongchang on October 31, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial photo shows a general view of the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium venue of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic games, in the town of Hoenggye on October 31, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
The mascot for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics Soohorang is seen during the Pyeongchang Winter Festival, near the venue for the opening and closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
An ice sculpture of the Olympic rings is seen during the Pyeongchang Winter Festival, near the venue for the opening and closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A photo taken on October 30, 2017 shows a general view of the Gangneung Hockey Centre ice hockey venue of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic games, in Gangneung. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on October 30, 2017 shows a general view of the Gangneung Oval speed skating venue of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic games, in Gangneung. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 30, 2017: A view of the Pyeongchang 2018 logo by the Olympic Stadium. Stanislav Varivoda/TASS (Photo by Stanislav Varivoda\TASS via Getty Images)
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Tillerson called on Pyongyang to agree to talks on dismantling its nuclear program.

"The North Koreans know our channels are open and they know where to find us," he said, adding, "It’s time to talk, but they have to take the step that says they want to talk."

While the administration says there are several potential candidates to take Cha’s place, his withdrawal underscores growing concerns about the potential for a diplomatic vacuum, not only in Seoul but in strategic posts around the world.

To date, four of the six undersecretary of state positions remain unfilled and one is held by an Obama-era holdover. There have been nominations submitted to Congress to fill two of the four vacant positions.

Ambassador posts in critical locations like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Cairo; Doha, Qatar; Amman, Jordan and the European Union also remain vacant.

This unconventional foreign policy structure — often dictated by the president’s public statements and tweets — has resulted in a withering State Department, crippled by budget cuts and staffing delays that have muddled the once-clear diplomatic channels to Washington, according to U.S. and foreign diplomats.

Trump himself made no mention of "Little Rocket Man" — his nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — or "fire and fury" when he spoke about the North in his State of the Union address Tuesday, instead adopting a relatively subdued approach.

He sought to highlight the human cost of North Korea’s aggression, inviting as his guests Tuesday the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died days after being released from captivity in North Korea, and Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who works from Seoul to rescue other defector.

And he accused Kim and his regime of a "reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles" that pose a threat to American security.

"Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation," said Trump. "I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position."

The president "has served, for better or worse, as his own ambassador to Seoul," said Gordon Chang, author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World." "Any ambassador is going to be held hostage to policies that are probably very political" in nature.

RELATED: US-North Korea relations escalate in 1968

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US-North Korea relations escalate in 1968
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US-North Korea relations escalate in 1968
(Original Caption) 12/23/1968-Pammunjom, South Korea- Commander Lloyd Bucher, (L) captain of the captured U.S. intelligence ship, 'Pueblo,' leaves a press conference at a base camp near Pammunjom following his and his crew's release from North Korea after eleven months of captivity. Bucher is accompanied by U.S. Navy Public Information Officer, Captain Vince Thomas, (center), and a military policeman.
Commander Lloyd E. Bucher (left, back to the wall), commanding officer of the USS Pueblo, a Navy ship captured by North Korea in the Sea of Japan in 1968, answers questions during a naval court of inquiry. January 24, 1969. His counsel, E. Miles Harvey and Captain James E. Keyes, sit at a nearby table (right). (Photo by Nord Petersen/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - APRIL 20: North Korean navy ratings guard the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship, on the river Taedong in central Pyongyang 16 April 2001. The ship was attacked and captured in January 1968 and the crew held for 11 months. It has now become a symbol of a new anti-US propaganda battle. According to North Korean state media, growing numbers of people visit the ship to show their anger at US policy toward the communist state. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read TIM WITCHER/AFP/Getty Images)
Crew members of the US Navy spy ship 'USS Pueblo' cross the Bridge of No Return between North and South Korea, after their release into US custody, 23rd December 1968. They had been seized by North Korean forces on 23rd January of the same year. Official US Navy Photo by PH2 T. K. Reynolds, USNR. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Comdr. Lloyd Bucher, the Pueblo's captain, appears at a press conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, 9/12/68. At the press conference, members of the Pueblo's crew explained the ship's mission and described its capture. The newsfilm from which these pictures were made was shot by the North Korean news agency.
(Original Caption) Major General Pak Chung Kuk, North Korean Army, across table from Rear Admiral John V. Smith, U.S. Navy, during 262nd meeting of the Armistice Commission.
Korean Guard looks out window with binoculars. | Location: Pamunjom, Korea.
(Original Caption) President Johnson confers with Defense Secretary McNamara during a meeting of the National Security Council at the Executive Mansion 1/24, in this photo released by the White House. The Council discussed the seizure on the high seas of the USS Pueblo by North Korea.
(Original Caption) As the news came in that President Johnson had ordered 14,787 Air Force and Navy Reservists to active duty January 25th, William D. Jackson of Brooklyn (right) entered the US Air Force recruiting station at Times Square and talked about enlisting. Chatting with him is Technical Sgt. Steven L. Ramirez. The United States called, January 25th, for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to consider 'the grave situation' arising from the seizure of the intelligence ship 'Pueblo' by North Korea.
Algerian Ambassador to the United nations Tewfik Bouattoura (left) listens during a UN Security Council meeting addressing the international inicdent involving North Korea's capture of an alleged American spy boat, the USS Pueblo (AGER-2), New York, New York, late January 1968. (Photo by Al Fenn/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
The U.S.Aircraft carrier ENTERPRISE, 75,700 tons, the world's largest warship which carries about 100 planes, and which is reported to be sailing towards North Korea following the seizure of America's spy ship 'Pueblo' in international waters. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Officers and crew of the United States Navy ship USS Pueblo being led away after being captured by North Korean forces in international waters in the Sea of Japan during the Vietnam War.
(Original Caption) Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, following a 3-hour meeting of his committee 1/24, said a decision on whether to order a full scale investigation into the Tonkin Gulf attack had been postponed. Fulbright said he felt the Administration should 'be very careful' in its response to North Korea's seizure of the USS Pueblo.
NORTH KOREA - JANUARY 01: North Korea. Discovery of weapons and bodies of a United Nations commando force which entered illegally into North Korea. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) 1/2/1968-Along the Western Truce Front, Korea- U.S. troops manning the western tip of 151-mile Korean truce front have recently completed a 15-mile fence as part of a new security system along the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Constructed of iron poles and barbed wire, the fence- it is hoped -will keep North Koreans from smuggling agents into the South.
Commander Lloyd Bucher is greeted by his wife, Cindy, upon returning from captivity in North Korea. He and his crew aboard the USS Pueblo were captured in January 1968. (Photo by James L. Amos/Corbis via Getty Images)
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