North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile this week was condemned by the Pentagon, which said the missile was of a type “we’ve not seen before.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reveled in the successful test, saying his country would never abandon nuclear weapons while vowing to continue sending “gift packages” to Washington.
The US and South Korea responded by firing missiles into the South Korean waters to counter what the US Army called ” North Korea’s destabilizing and unlawful actions on July 4.” (The US has flown bombers over the Korean Peninsula several times in recent months as well.)
As this period of contentious relations with North Korea drags on, the US is without an important component of its foreign police apparatus.
Among the numerous positions unfilled at the State Department on several jobs directly related to dealings with North Korea and northwest Asia.
“Nobody has been nominated to be ambassador to South Korea,” Brian Klaas, a fellow at the London School of Economics, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill. “Nobody has been nominated to be under secretary for arms control and international security affairs or assistant secretary for arms control, verification and compliance.”
“No nominee has been submitted for assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation affairs,” Klaas writes, “or for assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs. The list goes on and on.”
Other jobs still unfilled include the under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights; the under secretary for economic growth, energy, and the environment; and the counselor to the department, who provides guidance to the secretary.
Currently, 50 countries and international organisations are without a US ambassador, according to the American Foreign Policy Association.
The vacancies in Foggy Bottom have been a problem throughout Trump’s term, and one for which Trump, Tillerson, and Congress have traded blame.
When Trump left for his first foreign trip at the end of May, seven of nine senior jobs at the State Department were still unfilled. Even now, many of the assistant secretary positions, which are important liaisons between the secretary of state and his department’s analysts and experts, are unfilled by permanent occupants.
“Instead, with few announced appointments, weak Acting Assistant Secretaries are playing the role of placeholders. They have little access to Tillerson and when they interact with their foreign counterparts it is clear they have no mandate or influence on U.S. policy,” Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote at the end of June.
“The result is that Tillerson is relying almost exclusively on only two aides — his Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin and Head of Policy Planning Brian Hook. Most of the department’s expertise are going unused and the Secretary is not getting the best information,” Goldenberg writes, adding that the two aides cannot be responsible for the entire world, creating “major bottlenecks” in the policymaking process.
Trump, who has not slacked in making judicial appointments, has picked up the pace with selecting nominees for other jobs, though many government departments, including the executive branch, remain understaffed.
Trump himself is to blame for this, Anne O’Connell, a University of California at Berkeley law professor, told CNBC, because he has required loyalty tests for nominees and multiple people to sign off on appointments.
In early June, the president blamed Democrats in Congress for the delay in appointments, saying opposition legislators “are taking forever to approve my people, including Ambassadors.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded in kind, saying Trump “needs only to look in the mirror” to find the person responsible for the vacancies.
The White House — which is weighing eliminating State Department jobs and cutting the foreign-policy budget — has also pinned the blame for unfilled State Department jobs on the department itself. At the end of April, a senior administration official told CNN that Tillerson and his staff had not acted on personnel suggestions or were still in the process of considering or vetting them.
“This is State being slow,” the official said.
Tillerson has lashed out at the White House over the staffing shortfalls, but others see the former Exxon CEO — who is also weighing cutting 2,300 to 2,500 jobs at State — as hollowing out or gutting the department he now leads.
The incoming class of foreign service officers has been cancelled, senior officials have been pushed out, retired officers who fill jobs on short-term assignments have been dismissed, and office managers have been told three people must leave before one hire can be made.
Tillerson has also halted transfers and reassignments, meaning people already working at the State Department can no longer move to new positions within the department.
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