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US top envoy for NK steps down without successor

July 10, 2024 - 14:33 By Ji Da-gyum
Jung Pak (far left) speaks during a discussion on the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi hosted by the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings in Washington DC in March 2019. (Brookings Institution)

Jung Pak, who served as the United States' top diplomat for North Korea issues, has recently resigned, leaving the position vacant again amid stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang since the Biden administration's inauguration in January 2021.

Pak's resignation is noteworthy in light of the Biden administration's trend of downgrading similar positions. The trend led to the US special representative for North Korea position within the State Department remaining unfilled since December 2023, with Pak, who had served as deputy US Special Representative for North Korea, assuming the role under a different title.

The US State Department confirmed Tuesday that Pak resigned from her concurrent positions as the US Senior Official for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, effective July 5.

“She has stepped down, and we do thank Dr. Pak for her tireless dedication and strong leadership on DPRK since assuming office in 2021,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a press briefing Tuesday, referring to North Korea by the acronym of its official name.

Miller explained that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Dan Kritenbrink would oversee North Korea policy for the Department of State.

Ambassador Julie Turner would continue as the special envoy on North Korean human rights issues and Seth Bailey, who serves as the director for the Office of Korean and Mongolian Affairs, would remain as the deputy special representative for the DPRK.

Miller, however, added that there were no "additional personnel announcements to make" at this time.

Since Sung Kim, who served as the US special representative for the DPRK from May 2021, retired at the end of 2023, the US State Department has not appointed his successor. However, Pak, who had been serving as the Deputy Special Representative for the DPRK, succeeded in his role under the new title in January 2024.

However, under the Biden administration, Kim also held a dual position as the US Ambassador to Indonesia, unlike his predecessor under the Trump administration.

Kim’s predecessor, Stephen Biegun, initially took on the role of special representative for North Korea full-time in August 2018, following the Singapore Summit between then-US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has also eliminated its equivalent to the position --special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs -- amid an organizational reshuffle earlier this year.

Both positions were in effect chief negotiators for the Six-Party Talks. The talks have been stalled since 2013, but the negotiators of South Korea, the US and Japan still meet when security developments happen on the peninsula.

Currently, the chief nuclear negotiator roles in Korea and Japan are held by Lee Jun-il, director general for North Korean nuclear affairs at South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, and Hiroyuki Namazu, director general for Asian and Oceanian affairs at Japan’s Foreign Ministry. The US negotiator was Pak, but there is no clear occupant of that role since her departure.

The three held regular consultations during North Korea's provocations such as missile tests and significant developments in the country to share assessments and discuss joint responses.