Joseph Yun, the State Department’s top diplomat on North Korea policy, will retire at the end of the week, the agency said Monday.
Yun, a former ambassador to Malaysia, currently serves as the special representative for North Korea policy and has served with the foreign service since 1985. He has been instrumental in crafting U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula since his appointment by President Barack Obama in 2016 and helped secure the release of gravely ill American student Otto Warmbier last year.
“It was completely my decision to retire at this time,” Yun told CNN about his departure.
“The Secretary has reluctantly accepted his decision and wished him well,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement provided to HuffPost. “Ambassador Yun has served with distinction for more than 30 years … we are sorry to see him retire.”
Nauert noted that “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.”
Yun is the State Department’s top official working on North Korean issues and has been a strong advocate for engagement with the regime, particularly as tensions have increased in the region. He was among the first to learn that Warmbier had fallen into a coma at some point during his 17-month detention in the country, and he flew to Pyongyang last June to secure his release.
Warmbier died just days later.
The Post noted that Yun also served as the U.S. official tasked with communicating with North Korean representatives at the United Nations in New York, the backchannel used by diplomats to communicate even while official channels are closed.
Yun’s departure comes just days after the close of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where diplomats from North Korea hovered around envoys from the United States for weeks. A secret meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister was canceled at the last minute after Pence used the trip to slam the regime and declined to acknowledge the North Korean representatives.
But, despite the frosty encounters, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday the North was willing to open a dialogue with the United States, although it was unclear if such talks would come with strings attached. The U.S. has said in recent weeks it would hold preliminary talks with the North, but only to explain that it would keep up international pressure in hopes of convincing the North to abandon its nuclear weapon programs.
The U.S. also announced a new barrage of sanctions against Pyongyang last week.
Yun’s departure leaves the Trump administration without another senior official on the Korean peninsula. The White House has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea and pulled back from a widely respected candidate last month after the man, Victor Cha, expressed concerns over policy decisions related to North Korea.
It’s unclear who will replace Yun, but morale in the foreign service has been falling since Donald Trump took over the presidency in January 2017. Dozens of top-level officials at the State Department have left the agency over the past year, and applications to join the foreign service have plummeted.