By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, May 1 (Yonhap) -- President Barack Obama's pick of a senior Pentagon official as his new envoy to Seoul is viewed as aimed at strengthening the Seoul-Washington alliance but also trilateral security cooperation with Japan.
Mark Lippert, chief of staff to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, has a firm belief that the regional powers should take a separate approach to security cooperation and history disputes, according to Pentagon officials.
Such a stance may run counter to Seoul's deep-rooted sensitivity to Tokyo's territorial claims and interpretation of history.
At a Washington forum on U.S.-Japan relations earlier this week, Lippert emphasized Washington's efforts to bolster trilateral cooperation, especially on missile defense to counter North Korea's threats.
He said the U.S. hopes for tripartite defense ministerial talks late this month in Singapore when the military chiefs of the three nations gather for an annual security forum, called the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Having worked as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs for a year until May 2013, Lippert led the U.S. delegation to the annual Defense Trilateral Talks (DTT) with South Korea and Japan.
Even in his capacity as chief of staff to the defense secretary, he served as chief U.S. delegate to the DTT in Washington earlier this month. It's quite unusual, given his current position.
But with the post of the Pentagon's top Asia-Pacific hand still vacant, Lippert was the appropriate official to join the DTT, a department official said.
"Lippert is well versed in regional security issues," the official said. "He is really interested in those issues."
South Korean diplomats in Washington would not be drawn into a question about whether or how Lippert, if confirmed as ambassador to Seoul, will affect trilateral security cooperation.
They were instead vocal in welcoming reports of his upcoming nomination.
"Mr. Lippert is knowledgeable in policy issues," a South Korean embassy official said. "He has a good reputation in the diplomatic circles here. He has lots of interest in Asia."
A foreign ambassador here was quoted as saying that Lippert may become "South Korea's Caroline Kennedy," the popular U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Experts also note Lippert's close personal ties with Obama.
"He is well-networked within the White House, (the Defense Department) and State," Victor Cha, former director for Asian Affairs at the NSC, told Foreign Policy magazine. "Every country wants an ambo that can pick up the phone and get the president's attention. Mark can do that."
John Park, adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, said South Korean policy elites see him as "their direct line to both the White House and the Pentagon."
He added, "Lippert's close ties to President Obama and Secretary Hagel would bode well for Seoul as the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region unfolds amid looming crises emanating from North Korea."
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