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(2nd LD) Outgoing U.S. diplomat hopeful about U.S.-N.K. talks

All Headlines 02:39 February 28, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES with Yun's remarks, background in paras 1-10, 19-20; CHANGES headline)

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (Yonhap) -- The outgoing top U.S. diplomat for North Korea policy said Tuesday he is hopeful about the prospect of talks resolving the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

Joseph Yun, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, is retiring at the end of this week at a time when Washington and Pyongyang have been exploring avenues to hold talks on the nuclear threat.

The State Department said the ambassador would be retiring for personal reasons.

"I'm very hopeful about talks," Yun told Yonhap in a phone interview. "I hope there is a good dialogue, there is a peaceful resolution, improvement in the security climate on the Korean peninsula."

This Reuters file photo shows Joseph Yun, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy. (Yonhap)

Tensions ran high last year as North Korea tested its sixth and most powerful nuclear weapon as well as three intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

This year the tensions eased somewhat as the two Koreas engaged in talks over the North's participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. On Sunday, a senior North Korean ruling party official told South Korean President Moon Jae-in his country had "ample intentions" to resume dialogue with the U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump responded Monday that such talks would only take place under the right conditions. The White House earlier said it "will see" if the North's overture represents a commitment to denuclearize.

"I'm optimistic," Yun said of the prospect of a peaceful resolution. "What we are doing in terms of maximum pressure and engagement is the policy."

The U.S.-led maximum pressure campaign seeks to increase economic and diplomatic sanctions on Pyongyang until the regime comes forward to discuss its denuclearization.

The State Department said that effort will continue.

"Ambassador Joe Yun, a respected member of the Senior Foreign Service, has decided to retire for personal reasons, ‎and the Secretary has reluctantly accepted his decision and wished him ‎well," department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

"We are sorry to see him retire, but our diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea will continue based on our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the DPRK until it agrees to begin credible talks toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula," she added, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The spokeswoman said Yun served with distinction for more than 30 years.

Sources said he could have felt "deep frustration" at the Trump administration's apparent lack of respect for the State Department, with the White House recently indicating it would take the lead in any talks with Pyongyang.

But they also said the ambassador had not planned to stay in the job for long and talked about stepping down since last year. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to stop him but eventually gave in Monday, they said.

"His departure is a big loss for South Korea, too," one of the sources said on condition of anonymity.

Trump has yet to nominate an ambassador to Seoul, while the acting top U.S. diplomat in charge of East Asia, Susan Thornton, has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

The vacancies have raised questions about Trump's commitment to diplomacy to deal with the North Korean regime. His administration has repeatedly said all options are on the table, including military action, and Trump has previously threatened to "totally destroy" the regime if necessary.

"I'm not leaving because of policy difference. I wanted to emphasize that," Yun said. "I thought this was a good time (to retire) in many respects, and I've been doing this work since October 2016, so it's been a while."

The ambassador also said he believes it's time to change the U.S. point man on North Korea, and someone close to the president would be effective as his successor.


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