01:27 - Source: Department of Defense
US admiral: China is our biggest challenge
Washington CNN —  

President Donald Trump finally has an ambassador to South Korea, as the Senate confirmed retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris by a voice vote Thursday, filling a key diplomatic post that had remained vacant since the current administration took office.

Harris, the former commander of US Pacific Command, had been tapped as ambassador to Australia until Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested to the President that Harris be nominated to fill the open post in Seoul ahead of the June 12 summit between Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, sources told CNN at the time.

Trump’s previous choice for the post, Victor Cha, was dropped in January following a disagreement over the White House’s consideration of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

Now Harris faces the challenge of helping Pompeo facilitate the next step in talks with Pyongyang – which, despite Trump’s claim to the contrary, remains a nuclear threat, according to the secretary of state’s testimony on Capitol Hill this week.

During his confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month, Harris also said North Korea continues to be a nuclear threat and advocated that major military exercises be paused to give Kim a chance to prove whether he is “serious,” a recommendation Trump ultimately took to heart.

During his tenure at Pacific Command, Harris has not minced words about North Korea’s ambitions.

US forces in the Pacific “must be prepared to fight tonight, so I take him at his word,” he said last year about Kim’s intentions. “I must assume his claims are true – I know his aspirations certainly are.”

But throughout his confirmation process Harris struck a different tone.

“Following the summit, we are in a dramatically different place,” Harris told lawmakers. “The whole landscape has shifted. I believe we should give exercises, major exercises, a pause to see if Kim Jong Un is in fact serious about his part of the negotiations.”

He added, “I’ve spoken in the past about the need to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses and not to his knees.”

The summit in Singapore “wasn’t designed to solve all issues at once, but to be a starting point to start serious negotiations,” Harris said, meant “to establish the modalities for what a complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization means and how we’re going to go about that.”

Harris has also watched as an increasingly assertive China has pursued a more muscular military posture in the Pacific and established a military presence on man-made islands in areas the US and its allies contend are international waters.

A 1978 graduate of the US Naval Academy, Harris was designated a naval flight officer after graduation and has held several other command assignments in the Navy, including with the US Pacific Fleet and the 6th Fleet.

CNN’s Nicole Gaouette and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report