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Politics & Government

Unfilled State Department Jobs Could Hamper North Korea Solutions


Secretary of State Tillerson's been trying to find a diplomatic path out of the crisis with North Korea. He's been working to keep up international pressure, but it's a hard sell made even harder by the fact that the Trump administration has been slow to fill top jobs at the State Department and is drastically cutting the budget for diplomacy, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Career diplomat Danny Russell was the point person on Asia until earlier this year, and he has a lot of confidence in the foreign service officers posted in that region. But he says U.S. allies and foes alike want to know that they're talking to someone who really represents the administration's views.

DANNY RUSSELL: Are you it? Are you the assistant secretary? Are you the person that the Trump administration has designated to lead the State Department's policy work as pertains to Asia broadly and particularly in a moment of high tension with North Korea?

KELEMEN: The career diplomat who took his place, Susan Thornton, is still acting assistant secretary of state. The White House has yet to formally nominate anyone for that job, which requires Senate approval. There is a point person on North Korea - Joseph Yun, who's held back channel talks with Pyongyang. But Russell says there are many other openings in this crucial part of the world.

RUSSELL: We have a brand new ambassador in Beijing. We're waiting for Bill Haggerty to get to Tokyo. And we don't have a nominee for Seoul, South Korea. These are handicaps for the administration.

KELEMEN: The lack of appointments and the plans for massive budget cuts have led to some pretty scathing reviews of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Editorials describe a hollowed-out State Department. One recent headline from columnist Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush, calls Tillerson a huge disappointment despite his management credentials running Exxon Mobil. Tillerson's deputy, John Sullivan, is trying to push back.


JOHN SULLIVAN: We are hitting on all cylinders even though we don't have the full complement of political appointees that we should have.

KELEMEN: Sullivan told a group of reporters earlier this week that he's working hard on this.


SULLIVAN: I probably spend an hour a day at least either interviewing candidates or trying to get candidates through the process.

KELEMEN: The deputy secretary of state says about 60 percent of the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries have either been identified or formally nominated. Many ambassadors are also in the pipeline. But the fact that there's still no nominee for a country like South Korea is causing concern, says Russell, now a diplomat in residence at the Asia Society.

RUSSELL: It doesn't make it any easier to deal with the stress and the tension that's generated right now by North Korea's mad sprint for the nuclear and ballistic missile finish line.

KELEMEN: Without political appointments in place, governments in Asia and around the world are canvassing the Trump administration, trying to open lines to various advisors in the White House. And they're getting mixed messages that are often hard to sort out. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.