Trump is expected to tap North Korea envoy for deputy secretary of state
Sept. 17, 2019
President Trump is expected to nominate Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, to be the next deputy secretary of state, three administration officials confirmed to me. The move comes as North Korea nuclear negotiations are set to resume and the Trump administration overhauls its national security leadership for the president’s fourth year in office.
Biegun has served in his North Korea role under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo since August of last year. He’s a well-respected foreign policy professional with decades of relevant experience in government and on Capitol Hill. Although the North Korea negotiations have been largely stalled, Biegun has maintained a vigorous schedule of traveling to partner countries to drum up diplomatic progress and sanctions enforcement. He is said by colleagues to have a good personal relationship with both Pompeo and Trump. He clashed with former national security adviser John Bolton over North Korea policy, but that’s no longer an issue .
No Trump personnel decision is final until the president makes the announcement, officials warned, and the timing is still unclear. The date of current deputy secretary John Sullivan’s long-expected departure is not set. Trump is considering Sullivan to be the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow. Biegun must go through a new vetting before his official nomination, followed by a Senate confirmation process. But the Senate is expected to confirm him easily if he makes it that far, considering his long relationships with lawmakers and Hill staffers. The State Department declined to comment.
Biegun is expected to keep his job as Pompeo’s lead negotiator with North Korea if confirmed; in fact, his promotion could increase his credibility with Pyongyang. After North Korea’s last negotiating team disappeared following the failed Hanoi summit, their new counterpart to Biegun appears to be First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui.
The State Department is reportedly negotiating for a new working-level meeting, presumably between Biegun and Choe, in a third country. Biegun has long been a proponent of striking an interim agreement with Pyongyang as a steppingstone to full normalization, sometimes referred to as the “ small deal .”
In advance of the potential new talks, North Korea has been firing short-range ballistic missiles and increasing its demands for concessions in exchange for progress on the nuclear issue.
Last month, Trump said he had received another “ very beautiful letter ” from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Asked Monday if he planned to visit North Korea, the president said, “ probably not ,” but didn’t rule it out for the future.
“I would do it ... at some time in a later future, and depending on what happens I’m sure he’ll love coming to the United States also. But, no, I don’t think it’s ready for that. I think we have a ways to go yet,” he added.
As for Biegun, he is another example of a member of the GOP establishment who is succeeding inside the Trump administration. During the campaign, Biegun didn’t criticize Trump like many of his GOP foreign policy expert colleagues; he was working for Ford Motor Co. at the time.
But Biegun’s roots in the GOP foreign policy community go way back. He was a House and then Senate staffer who worked on NATO enlargement and aid packages for Europe and former Soviet states after the Berlin Wall fell. In 1992, he moved to Moscow to open the office of the International Republican Institute, to support Russia’s shift to democracy.
He worked in the George W. Bush White House and was executive secretary of the National Security Council on 9/11. In 2008, Biegun worked on the John McCain presidential campaign as the personal foreign policy adviser to Sarah Palin .
“Steve is a consummate foreign policy professional with the political acumen to be successful in this job,” said Randy Scheunemann, vice chairman of the International Republican Institute. “His selection demonstrates that they want a seasoned professional that can connect with the establishment but also holds deeply the values that make American foreign policy great.”
Although his foreign policy ideology might not align perfectly with Trump or even Pompeo, Biegun has proved himself to be a team player willing to take on tough jobs. If confirmed, his job will include helping to manage the State Department and representing Foggy Bottom at the NSC Deputies Committee meetings.
Who will be leading the NSC is still an open question following Bolton’s sudden departure last week. On Tuesday, Trump publicly named five finalists : Fred Fleitz, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, Keith Kellogg, Robert O’Brien and Ricky Waddell.
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