Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday appointed Steve Biegun as the administration’s envoy for North Korea just days ahead of a crucial diplomatic visit to the closed-off Asian country to discuss denuclearization.
Biegun, who Pompeo praised as “eminently qualified” and “clear-eyed in the challenge before us,” is currently the vice president of international government affairs at Ford Motor Company. The secretary of state said he and Biegun would travel to North Korea next week, “to make further diplomatic progress toward” getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
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The appointment comes after some criticism that the State Department was trying to negotiate with the mercurial North Korean regime without a point person. Biegun is the first official in charge of focusing on North Korea since the March departure of Joseph Yun, a special representative for North Korea policy.
Biegun has an extensive foreign policy background in Washington, both on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
On the Hill, Biegun served as national security adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, as well as chief of staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the White House, Biegun was a senior National Security Council staffer during the George W. Bush administration.
Though his experience lies mostly in European and Russian affairs, Biegun has been involved with the National Bureau of Asian Research, as well as the US-ASEAN Business Council.
Before his appointment Thursday, Biegun had been floated for a number of Trump administration roles, including as a replacement for national security adviser H.R. McMaster — a role that eventually went to John Bolton. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been among Biegun’s biggest boosters.
Following President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, lawmakers and foreign officials expressed concern that the administration had not named anyone to oversee negotiations with North Korea. Thus far, Pompeo has served as the point person for North Korea policy, but some feared that his broad responsibilities would keep him from giving the nuclear negotiations sustained attention.
“The Trump administration has hit an impasse with the North Koreans and it’s been clear for a long while that a senior level U.S. envoy was urgently needed to try to move the ball forward. This is a portfolio that cannot be tended to on a part-time basis, even by the secretary of state,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a North Korea expert with the New America think tank. “Mr. Biegun has a great deal of work ahead of him.”
Biegun is the third special envoy Pompeo has announced in recent days — a break with Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who eliminated dozens of such special envoy roles in an attempt to reorganize the State Department.
The other recently named special envoys are Brian Hook, who will deal with Iran issues, and James Jeffrey, who will tackle matters related to Syria. Reuters also reported this week that Pompeo may name Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, as a special envoy for Afghanistan.
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