Washington Bureau

04.30.14

Obama Confidant To Be Next Ambassador To South Korea

One of Obama’s longest serving foreign policy advisors, now a top Pentagon official, is set to be named U.S. Ambassador to South Korea

President Obama will name Mark Lippert, an advisor and friend dating back to his time in the Senate, as the next U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, two senior administration officials told The Daily Beast.

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Mark Lippert currently serves as chief of staff to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Obama will announce as soon as Thursday that he is nominating Lippert to replace Sung Kim as America’s top diplomat in South Korea, the officials said. The nomination comes at a tense time on the Korean peninsula, with North Korea threatening further provocations including a possible fourth nuclear test.

Lippert is one of Obama’s oldest and closest advisors on foreign policy, having served in Obama’s Senate office and then as a top advisor in Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Lippert was the National Security Council Chief of Staff, a position resurrected by the Obama White House in 2009 for 10 months, until he was pushed out by then National Security Advisor Jim Jones, who accused Lippert of being responsible for leaks to the media that revealed Jones’ mismanagement of the NSC.

Lippert spent some time deployed abroad as a Naval Reserve intelligence officer before returning to the Obama administration in 2011 as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs. Sen. John McCain held Lippert’s nomination for months, demanding an explanation of the Lippert-Jones feud, but eventually relented and let the nomination go through.

There is not expected to be any fight this time over Lippert’s nomination to be Ambassador to South Korea, although it could be a while before he gets confirmed due to the bitter Senate fight over confirmations following Democratic leadership’s elimination of the filibuster for executive appointments last fall. In retaliation, Republicans have slowed the confirmations process to a trickle and dozens of ambassadors are waiting in line for confirmation.

Recently, the White House has been pushing the speedy confirmation of ambassadors to countries Obama is set to visit.  But Obama just returned from a trip to South Korea last week and isn’t expected to return any time soon.

The Seoul posting is particularly sensitive though because 28,000 U.S. troops are based in South Korea and conflict with North Korea could break out at any time. Lippert will be the first political appointee to the South Korea ambassador post; the job has traditionally gone to career foreign-service officers.

But the South Korean government enthusiastically endorsed the Lippert choice because he is close personally to Obama and has had an extensive working relationship with Seoul during his time at the Pentagon.

Lippert played an important role in crafting the Pentagon’s part of the Asia pivot policy, as codified in then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's June 2012 speech at the Shangri-La conference in Singapore. He worked to bolster missile defense capabilities against the North Korean threat, has a good relationship with U.S. Forces Korea Commanders General Thurman and General Scaparrotti, and led two separate U.S. delegations to the Defense Trilateral Talks between the U.S.-Japan-Korea on a range of key security issues.

“South Korea will count itself lucky to have a person as able, as close to the president, as dedicated to the alliance, and as competent as Mark Lippert,” said former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. “The guy has done it all for the last several years and this will only strengthen relations between South Korea and Washington.”

There’s no word yet as to who will replace Lippert as Hagel’s right hand man at the Pentagon.

A Defense Department spokesman declined to comment.