The senior US diplomat for Asia, Susan Thornton, is to retire at the end of this month, the US Department of State said on Saturday, in the midst of critical negotiations with North Korea and China.
Questions have long been raised about whether Thornton, 54, who was picked for the post by former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, would be replaced under his successor, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Her appointment had been opposed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
“Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton has announced her intention to retire from the Foreign Service at the end of July,” department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
“We are grateful for her service of over two-and-a-half decades to the Department of State, including numerous challenging assignments around the world,” Nauert added.
Nauert did not say when Pompeo planned to announce a replacement, but said: “He is moving forward with efforts to nominate candidates for leadership roles across the department, including for this key position.”
Thornton’s retirement comes as US President Donald Trump’s administration prepares for negotiations to ensure that Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons, following a summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last month.
Pompeo, who is charged by Trump with leading follow-on negotiations, said that the US hopes to achieve “major disarmament” by North Korea within the next two-and-a-half years.
Thornton’s departure also comes amid trade tensions between Washington and Beijing at a time when Trump is pressing China for cooperation on North Korea.
Thornton could not be immediately reached for comment on Saturday.
Separately, the department said that US Ambassador to Estonia Jim Melville had decided to step down from the foreign service after 33 years.
Media reports said that Melville, who has been ambassador to Estonia since 2015, was due to retire, but told friends in a private Facebook post that he was resigning following comments by Trump about US allies in Europe.
“Yesterday, the United States’ ambassador to Estonia Jim Melville announced his intent to retire from the Foreign Service effective July 29,” a department official said.
Melville could not be reached to confirm the reports that he would step down over Trump’s remarks.
Tensions between the US and Europe have escalated since Trump announced in May that he was pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and, separately, imposed tariffs on European steel and aluminum exports.
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