US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Ford Motor Co executive Stephen Biegun as US special representative to North Korea on Thursday and said they would both travel there next week to try to persuade it to abandon its nuclear weapons.
“Steve will direct US policy towards North Korea and lead our efforts to achieve President Trump's goal of the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea as agreed to by Kim Jong Un,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department, referring to the North Korean leader.
“He and I will be traveling to North Korea next week to make further diplomatic progress towards our objective,” Pompeo said.
It will be Pompeo's fourth trip this year aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States and his second since an unprecedented June summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim that produced much fanfare but little obvious progress.
Commenting on the North Korea situation, Biegun said “the issues are tough, and will be tough to resolve” but added that Trump had created an opening and “it's one that we must take by seizing every possible opportunity to realize the vision for a peaceful future for the people of North Korea.”
Biegun served as vice president of international governmental affairs for Ford for 14 years. The company announced his retirement earlier on Thursday.
Before joining Ford, Biegun served as national security advisor to then Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Prior to that, he worked in former President George W. Bush’s White House from 2001-2003 as executive secretary of the National Security Council. He also served as a senior staff member to Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
Biegun’s name was floated earlier this year among a list of contenders to replace Trump’s then national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who was ultimately succeeded by John Bolton.
Biegun fills a vacancy that has existed for months in the key position, since the late February retirement of Joe Yun, an appointee of former President Barack Obama and a strong advocate for diplomacy with North Korea.
Yun’s authority to engage with North Korea appeared to have been undercut by a tug-of-war between the White House and State Department over North Korea policy. But soon after Yun’s departure, Trump embraced a diplomatic approach to Pyongyang that led to the June summit.
Trump hailed the summit, which took place in Singapore, as a success and even went as far as to declare that the nuclear threat from North Korea was over, but Pyongyang has given no indication that is willing abandon its arsenal unilaterally.
Pompeo was charged with heading follow-up negotiations, but these appear to have made little progress, with the two sides apparently far apart on the fundamental issue of denuclearization and the US demand for this before North Korea sees any relief from tough international sanctions.
On his last visit to Pyongyang, from July 6-7, Pompeo left hailing progress, only for North Korea within hours to denounce his “gangster-like demands.”
This month, Pompeo had a brief encounter with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on the sidelines of a regional conference in Singapore which he described as “a quick, polite exchange.”
Yet no sooner had Pompeo left the venue, having suggested that they should talk again soon, than Ri delivered a speech denouncing Washington for stressing the need to maintain sanctions and for failing to agree an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Trump defended his efforts to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, saying he believed North Korea had taken specific steps toward denuclearization. He said he would “most likely” meet again with Kim.
However, several members of the US negotiating team said they had seen no progress and no sign that North Korea was prepared to negotiate seriously until the United States promised relief from sanctions in return.
Some US intelligence and defense officials consider Pompeo’s planned trip to be premature and said the prospects for significant progress appeared dim.
Kelly Magsamen, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian affairs now at the Center for American Progress said Biegun’s appointment would “hopefully bring focus and coherence” to US North Korea diplomacy.
“It is also a sign that the Trump Admin expects negotiations to continue for quite some time and is settling in for that,” she said in a message on Twitter.
North Korea state media last week blamed lack of progress on members of the US negotiating team and said breaking the deadlock would demand “a bold decision on the part of President Trump.”
A commentary in its Rodong Sinmun newspaper said those opposed to dialogue were seeking to derail talks with baseless references to “secret nuclear facilities” in North Korea.
US officials have been trying to persuade North Korea to declare the extent of its weapons programs, something Pyongyang had always refused to do in past failed rounds of talks.
Bolton said this month Pyongyang had not taken the necessary steps to denuclearize while US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned that Washington was “not willing to wait for too long.”
Bolton said Trump, in a letter to Kim, had proposed sending Pompeo back to North Korea and that the president was ready to meet with Kim again at any time.