On Memorial Day morning, Dr. Victor Cha was not, as many had expected last year, ensconced in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Instead he was finishing a workout and driving to his home in Maryland, not far from Georgetown University, where he is a professor of government and international affairs. He spoke to TIME by phone as he pulled into his driveway on a rare day off.
The former director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, Cha was President George Bush’s top advisor on North Korea. He is also Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of five books. But, more recently, he has been known, as he wryly puts it, “as the guy who almost became ambassador [to South Korea] despite the fact that I have a 30-year record of scholarship and I have done a previous tour of service in government. That’s the thing people like to write because it sounds sexier.”
Washington had formally requested Seoul’s approval for the Korean-American’s nomination, but he was abruptly withdrawn from consideration in January. (Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, was instead nominated by President Donald Trump on May 18 and awaits Senate confirmation.) Cha’s reported private disagreements over aspects of Trump’s strategy on North Korea were writ large in a January op-ed in the Washington Post, in which Cha wrote that giving Pyongyang “a bloody nose,” in the form of a preemptive strike, should be a non-starter. It would put American lives at risk, he said, and risk a catastrophic war on the peninsula.
“This bona fide hawk wasn’t hawkish enough for this administration” was how the Pyongyang-watcher website, NK News, described Cha in February.