Lippert confirmed as new U.S. ambassador to S. Korea
By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (Yonhap) -- The Senate confirmed Mark Lippert as new U.S. ambassador to South Korea on Thursday, paving the way for the long-time adviser to President Barack Obama to take office, after months of delay, as the youngest person to become the American ambassador to Seoul.
Lippert, chief of staff to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, was nominated in early May to replace Sung Kim as the top U.S. envoy to Seoul. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for him on June 18 and approved the nomination on June 24.
But his appointment has since been stuck in the Senate, along with dozens of others, due to a political impasse. Thursday's approval was a surprise because many had expected that confirmation of those nominations could be delayed until after November's midterm elections.
Lippert is one of Obama's longest and closest advisers on foreign policy. He is also known for his expertise on Korea and broader regional security issues, having worked as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2011 to 2012.
At age 41, he is also the youngest U.S. ambassador to South Korea ever.
Lippert assumes office at a time when Seoul and Washington have a string of sensitive issues to deal with in addition to the protracted standoff with North Korea over its nuclear program.
They include delaying the planned transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces from Washington to Seoul, the U.S. plan to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery to South Korea and the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State (IS).
South Korea handed over control of its forces to the U.S. during the 1950-53 Korean War to defend against invading troops from North Korea. Peacetime control of its forces was returned in 1994, and South Korea is currently scheduled to get back operational control in the event of war in December 2015.
But last year, Seoul asked for a delay in the OPCON transfer after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, saying the security situation on the peninsula was markedly different from when the transfer was agreed upon a few years ago.
The THAAD deployment plan is also a sensitive issue because it is seen as U.S. pressure on Seoul to buy a THAAD system and could inflame tensions with China and Russia as they see the U.S. move as a threat to their national and security interests.
Lippert also takes office as Washington is trying to drum up international support for its fight against IS. The U.S. has classified South Korea as a humanitarian contributor, but speculation has grown that Washington could ask for a contribution beyond that.