By Yi Whan-woo
Rumors are circulating here over who will become the U.S. ambassador to Korea under Donald Trump, while nominees for ambassadors to Japan and China have already been reported.
Some analysts say this could be an indication that Korea has been pushed aside in the Trump administration's list of priorities for its foreign policies in East Asia.
There have been no clues about who will replace former Ambassador Mark Lippert, who returned home on Trump's inauguration day, Friday.
In stark contrast, Trump signed the formal nomination of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as the next ambassador to China on the same day he was sworn into office.
Trump initially tapped Branstad, who has a close relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, for the post Dec. 7. The six-time Iowa governor can begin his new job immediately if approved by the Senate.
Regarding the ambassadorship in Tokyo, the U.S. and Japanese media outlets have reported since Dec. 28 that Trump plans to pick William Hagerty. The founder of Hagerty Peterson and Company, a private equity investment firm in the U.S., has spent many years in Japan. He was also the director of presidential appointments in Trump's transition team.
Analysts said Monday that South Korea's leadership vacuum is causing the delay in finding Lippert's successor in addition to Washington's greater interest toward Beijing and Tokyo over Seoul.
"For the Trump administration, Japan is comparable to the United Kingdom and other powerful allies who can support the U.S. in handling regional affairs," said Kim Hyun-wook, a U.S. expert at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. "The relationship with China is also important especially at a time of escalating Washington-Beijing rivalry."
Kim said the U.S. interest in South Korea is mainly limited to North Korea's military threats and this makes Seoul strategically less important than Beijing and Tokyo.
"Given the circumstance, Trump may pay more attention to the countries whose governments are working normally than one whose president has been impeached," he added.
Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong Global University, agreed, claiming the U.S. ambassadors to China and Japan were traditionally "politically appointments."
"The postings for the two countries were given to those who contributed to the new U.S. president winning the election, and their appointments usually came prior to those of career diplomats for new posts," he said. "The ambassadorship to South is usually given to career diplomats, although Lippert was an exceptional case."
Lippert, the youngest U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was seen as one of former U.S. President Barack Obama's "politically appointed" ambassadors for their ties dating back to Obama's days as a senator in the 2000s.
Meanwhile, a "soon-to-be" security advisor for U.S. Vice President Mike Pence recently visited South Korea, according to diplomatic sources.
The official met with a wide range of officials and also stopped by the demilitarized zone. The sources said such a visit is seen as the White House's bid to directly deal with security on the Korean Peninsula in the absence of an ambassador.