The nominated US ambassador to Australia might be sent to South Korea instead

US Navy Admiral Harry Harris (L) JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Trump administration is reportedly set to name US Navy Adm. Harry Harris as ambassador to South Korea.
  • Harris was already nominated to be ambassador to Australia.
  • Mike Pompeo, currently the nominee for secretary of state, is reportedly behind the move.

The Trump administration is planning to fill the long-vacant US ambassador position in South Korea with US Navy Adm. Harry Harris, who was originally set to take over as ambassador to Australia, according to multiple reports.

A senior White House official told Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin that the administration wanted to renominate Harris, the outgoing Pacific Command chief, for the South Korea job.

Harris had already been approved by the Australian government, but the White House late on Monday asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to postpone Harris’ confirmation hearing, which was supposed to take place on Tuesday morning. Harris’ successor at PACOM, Adm. Phil Davidson, was confirmed for that role by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday morning.

Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo is reportedly behind the switch. The White House official told Rogin that Harris has confirmed to Pompeo he is willing to take on the ambassador role in Seoul. An official familiar with the matter told CBS News the move was likely to happen, though President Donald Trump has yet to give the go-ahead.

The impetus for the change appears to be the need to fill a critical diplomatic role, especially ahead of potential talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are set to meet on Friday.

Kim has already met with Pompeo, in his role as CIA director.

Charge d’Affaires Mark Knapper has been leading the US Embassy in South Korea, but Trump has faced criticism for not filling the ambassador position there.

Victor Cha, a highly respected academic and an official in the George W. Bush administration, was under consideration for the role last year, but the White House scrapped his candidacy in December, reportedly over his privately expressed disagreements with Trump’s policy on North Korea.

Harris, who is well respected by members of both parties, is planning to retire this year after four decades in the Navy. His potential confirmation as South Korea ambassador will still take time, however, in part because of the need for more vetting. While he has a background and interest in US-Australian affairs, he has less experience with North Korea and South Korea, despite numerous visits to the latter as part of his PACOM duties.

While Pompeo is reportedly pushing for the change, he himself still needs Senate confirmation to take over at Foggy Bottom. His approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which appeared in doubt, came through on Monday evening, and a vote by the full Senate could come before Friday.

The reshuffle could also have an impact outside of the US and South Korea. Redirecting Harris to Seoul may hurt feelings in Canberra, and in China, where state media has attacked him for years, may bristle at his new post.