Pompeo’s New North Korea Envoy Wades Into Diplomatic Minefield
Stephen Biegun is widely considered a great pick for the job. But it may be an impossible task in the first place.
Just over a month into his job, the Trump administration’s point man for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, may face his first trial by fire with another summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced at the United Nations General Assembly this week that he was laying the groundwork for a second summit between Trump and Kim.
As the State Department’s new special representative for North Korea, Biegun will likely be in the center of the action if a second summit comes off. It will leave Biegun, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, dealing with some of the world’s toughest and savviest negotiators—hardened North Korean regime survivalists who have blocked the most fervent U.S. peace and nuclear negotiation efforts for decades.
At the same time, he’ll have to navigate contradictory messages and shifting goalposts as Trump figures out how he wants to tackle the North Korea problem. At the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, Trump thanked Kim for his “courage” and said North Korea is “making tremendous progress” on denuclearization as he suggested the two leaders would meet again soon. But most experts widely agree Kim hasn’t given up anything meaningful yet.
That double challenge underscores the paradox of Biegun’s appointment. He is widely considered a great pick—stuck with what may be an impossible assignment.
Pompeo tapped Biegun from the Ford Motor Co. last month, giving him responsibility for one of the toughest U.S. foreign-policy challenges—one that is a personal priority for the president. Biegun, a former congressional staffer with years of foreign-policy experience before his 15 years working for Ford, drew widespread praise from Republican foreign-policy circles as the right man for the job.
But the same experts and former officials who praise Biegun say his job may be doomed from the start—particularly after Trump prematurely declared victory at an earlier summit in Singapore with Kim, proclaiming on Twitter in June “[t]here is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
“Negotiators for North Korea in this administration are in a very difficult position,” said Victor Cha, an Asia scholar at Georgetown University who was at one point expected to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea. “They’re put in position of negotiating for things the president has already said they’ve gotten. That’s not a good position to be in.”
“There’s 25 years of bipartisan failure on North Korea, so I’m not confident that anyone can land a deal,” said Peter Feaver, who worked on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “But I am at least confident that Biegun will not be duped by the North Koreans.”
The State Department declined an interview request with Biegun for this story. A spokeswoman also did not comment on speculation that Pompeo and Biegun would meet with North Korean counterparts at the U.N. this week, saying the department has no new meetings to announce.
Biegun, according to nearly a dozen current and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy, has a strong track record of tackling complex foreign-policy problems. In the late 1990s, while serving as a senior foreign-policy advisor to Sen. Jesse Helms, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biegun was a key behind-the-scenes architect of enlarging NATO to include former Warsaw Pact adversaries in Eastern Europe. That required bringing conservative hawks together to work with the Clinton administration; adding new members to NATO requires Senate ratification.
Biegun played “an absolutely pivotal role in NATO enlargement,” said Ian Brzezinski, a former Bush administration Pentagon official who worked alongside Biegun as a Senate aide. Brzezinski said Biegun took hawkish congressional ideas and turned them into concrete, workable legislation that eventually reshaped the map of NATO.
A few years later, as executive secretary of the National Security Council, Biegun took the lead in crafting Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy. That required months of painstaking work, coaxing different bureaucracies and agencies with competing agendas to agree on a single document that reflected the president’s views.
Bush’s former national security advisor Stephen Hadley said that kind of experience will help Biegun navigate his new assignment.
“I think actually [Biegun]’s got just the right background and just the right understanding of the regional politics, understanding of proliferation, understanding of the problem of North Korea, in order to help the secretary and the president craft the overall policy,” Hadley said in a phone interview.
Still, Biegun, a Europe and Russia specialist by background, will be confronted by a slew of unfamiliar nuances and complexities in North Korea negotiations, where progress can be a mirage. Veteran North Korean negotiators in past talks have torpedoed hard-won concessions by moving single words or phrases in negotiation documents.
Jung Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA official, said Biegun’s inexperience on North Korea is a double-edged sword. Those not steeped in North Korea issues “have a fresh perspective. They might not be mired in revisiting history over and over again or being shackled to the history of bad North Korea negotiations,” she said.
“But the disadvantage is also those things. There’s something to be said about having that deep historical background,” she added.
Biegun will also face a two-front diplomatic war: one in North Korea, and one in Washington.
Despite Trump’s early victory laps surrounding apparent North Korean pledges to get rid of its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang is clinging to its nukes and dragging out negotiations. CIA Director Gina Haspel indicated Monday in rare public remarks she was skeptical Pyongyang would give up its nuclear weapons—though she said U.S.-North Korean relations were better off than a year ago thanks to Trump’s diplomatic overtures to Kim.
Pompeo himself got his first glimpse of how cagey and unpredictable the North Korean officials were during a visit to Pyongyang in July, in which Kim snubbed him by refusing to meet with him, then issued a statement decrying the demands he presented as “gangster-like.”
Then, there’s Biegun’s stature: While he is widely respected in Washington, it’s unclear whether the North Koreans will treat him as an envoy who truly speaks with the authority of the president or merely another obstacle from the U.S. side they have to fight through to get to Trump.
“Biegun is very well thought of, but clearly at a much lower level than a former Cabinet officer,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea now with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “If Pompeo is having trouble getting meetings or progress, the question is would someone of a lower rank—even those speaking for the president—be able to make progress.”
Kim, the first North Korean leader to be granted a one-on-one summit with a U.S. president, wants to talk only with Trump. The North Korean regime has been careful to avoid criticizing Trump, taking steps in public statements to simultaneously praise the U.S. president while bashing the national security establishment in Washington.
And Biegun will also have to wrestle with Trump’s own erratic policies that have veered from threatening Pyongyang with war to repeated, effusive praise for Kim, with other mixed messages in between.
At the Singapore summit, Trump unilaterally announced he would suspend U.S. military exercises with South Korea and issued a joint statement that experts widely panned as too vague and sparse to showcase real progress. In August, after Biegun had been on the job for 24 hours, Trump abruptly cancelled a planned trip to North Korea by Pompeo and his new envoy, citing a lack of progress on talks.
Meanwhile, Pompeo said last week he expected denuclearization talks to wrap up by the end of Trump’s first term, taking cues from the North Koreans’ talks with South Korea. But he appeared to walk that back on Monday, saying during a press conference at the U.N. General Assembly in New York it would be “foolish” to set an end date on talks.
“There are lots of mixed messages and garbled messages coming from the administration,” said Pak, of the Brookings Institution.
In response to criticism, a State Department spokeswoman said in an email: “We want denuclearization that is fully verified and, importantly, final—the President wants to denuclearize North Korea once and for all and not have the nuclear issue resurface again.”
If Trump and Kim do meet again and reach another handshake deal, experts agree Trump will need capable officials to hash out the details, and here Biegun can shine. But just what a deal might look like after Trump and his team finish, if they finish, has many North Korea watchers on edge.
“I think they can get [a deal],” said Cha, the Georgetown scholar. “The question is, is it going to be a good deal, a bad deal, or a fake deal?”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer