Senior Trump diplomat Joseph Yun for North Korea set to retire

SEOUL/WASHINGTON, Feb 27 (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.

A look back: North Korea unveils weapons at military parade

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North Korea unveils new weapons at military parade
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North Korea unveils new weapons at military parade
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un applauds during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
High ranking military officers cheer as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives for a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
People react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
TOPSHOT - Korean People's Army (KPA) tanks are displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers march on Kim Il-Sung squure during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to people attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading "Pukkuksong" during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Members of the Korean People's Army (KPA) ride on mobile missile launchers during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
An unidentified rocket is displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
People carry flags in front of statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A soldier salutes from atop an armoured vehicle as it drives past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers attend a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Attendees carry sheets in colours of the national flag of North Korea during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers, some of them on horses, march during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Civilian attendees watch North Korean soldiers marching during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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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.

"CONSUMMATE DIPLOMAT"

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."

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U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun arrives at a meeting with the media in Bangkok, Thailand December 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun (R) answers questions from reporters following meeting with Japan and South Korea chief nuclear negotiators to talk about North Korean issues at the Iikura guest house in Tokyo, Japan April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Yamanaka/Pool
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun (L), Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs Kenji Kanasugi (C) and South Korean Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Kim Hong-kyun pose for photographs before their meeting to talk about North Korean issues at the Iikura guest house in Tokyo, Japan April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Yamanaka/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Malaysian tycoon and controller of Weststar Aviation Syed Azman Syed Ibrahim (L), U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun (C) and KKR Regional Leader of South East Asia Ming Lu pose for a photograph after a signing ceremony between KKR and Weststar Aviation in Kuala Lumpur October 10, 2013. KKR & Co LP will buy a "substantial minority" stake in Malaysian helicopter charter firm Weststar Aviation Services for 642 million ringgit ($200.63 million), the U.S. private equity company said in a statement on Thursday.REUTERS/Samsul Said (MALAYSIA - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) walks near U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Y. Yun (L) as Kerry arrives for his meet-and-greet session with U.S. embassy employees in Kuala Lumpur October 10, 2013. Kerry is in Malaysia to meet with Malaysian officials and attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool (MALAYSIA - Tags: POLITICS)
Joseph Yun, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, talks to reporters after meeting with Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at Suu Kyi's home in Yangon December 10, 2010. The visit is seen as a move by Washington to test the political waters in Myanmar, a month after a controversial general election and Suu Kyi's release from years of detention. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun (MYANMAR - Tags: POLITICS)
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun reaches out to shake hands with Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director-General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs Kenji Kanasugi as South Korea's Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon walks toward his seat during a trilateral meeting in Seoul, South Korea, October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
US nuclear envoy Joseph Yun (L), standing next to South Korea's nuclear envoy Kim Hong-Kyun (C) and Japan's nuclear envoy Kenji Kanasugi (R), reacts during a press conference in Seoul on December 13, 2016. Senior US, Japanese and South Korean officials with special responsibility for the North Korean nuclear issue held talks on December 13, at a time of political flux and policy uncertainty in Washington and Seoul. / AFP / Ed JONES / (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. State Department's Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun (L) talks with South Korea's Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Kim Hong-kyun during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on November 1, 2016. / AFP / POOL / Lee Jin-man (Photo credit should read LEE JIN-MAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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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." (Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Heekyong Yang in Seoul.; Editing by Michael Perry)

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