U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo geared up for a fourth visit to North Korea, which he said Thursday was scheduled for next week, by announcing the filling of the long-open position of special representative to the nuclear-armed country.
Pompeo’s naming of Steve Biegun, a former Ford Motor Co. executive and veteran Republican foreign policy hand, as the U.S. special envoy to North Korea comes at a crucial moment in negotiations to persuade Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear weapons.
“Steve will direct U.S. policy towards North Korea and lead our efforts to achieve President (Donald) Trump’s goal of the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea, as agreed to by Chairman Kim Jong Un,” Pompeo said.
“It’s a very timely moment for Steve to join the team and come on board,” he added. “He and I will be traveling to North Korea next week to make further diplomatic progress towards our objective.”
The negotiations have remained at an impasse since Trump’s landmark Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June. Although Trump hailed the summit as a success, skeptics have questioned this assumption, given that Pyongyang, which has rejected unilaterally relinquishing its nuclear weapons, made few tangible commitments in a vaguely worded joint statement released after the meeting.
While satellite imagery has shown the North has begun work on dismantling a key missile engine testing site, a report released Wednesday showed that work was apparently halted last week.
Pompeo’s meeting could kick-start the stalled diplomatic process, injecting it with fresh momentum.
But U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Pompeo has no plans to meet with Kim in Pyongyang.
“We don’t have that scheduled; we have no expectations of meeting with Chairman Kim. That is not a part of this trip,” she told a news briefing, adding that the State Department team will be “leaving relatively soon.”
Pompeo met with the North Korean leader twice prior to the Trump-Kim summit, but did not meet with him on his third visit, which Pyongyang characterized as “regrettable.” After those talks, it accused Washington of making “gangster-like” demands and attempting to unilaterally force Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
Pompeo said Biegun will now be “taking the reins of a great team effort” in North Korean talks. “As the special representative, Steve will lead negotiations and spearhead diplomatic efforts with our allies and partners,” he said.
Biegun served as vice president of international governmental affairs for Ford for 14 years. Prior to that, he was a senior staffer for President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and also advised members of Congress on foreign affairs.
He said of North Korea: “The issues are tough, and they will be tough to resolve. But the president has created an opening, and its 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 also reiterated the White House’s stance that this process will have to begin with Kim handing over his nukes.
“This begins with the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea, as agreed by Chairman Kim Jong Un at the summit with President Trump in Singapore,” he said.
The North has bristled at this suggestion, and observers have pointed out that Kim and Trump’s 1½-page joint statement in Singapore agreed only to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees.”
Instead, North Korea has pushed for a “phased, synchronized” approach to denuclearizing.
In the more than two months since the Singapore summit, a spate of revelations have put a damper on Trump’s claims that he has resolved the nuclear issue.
On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, said in a report that it has not found any indication that North Korea has stopped its nuclear activities — including those at alleged secret sites.
Last month, media reports revealed that the North was secretly operating a suspected uranium enrichment facility, called Kangson. And in Senate testimony later in the month, Pompeo acknowledged that North Korean factories “continue to produce fissile material” used in making nuclear weapons.
Still, while the U.S. has said that its patience is not unlimited and that it needs to see some progress from North Korea, the State Department’s Nauert admitted Thursday that the complex negotiations are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
“I know you all want to speed up these things,” she said in response to a question about the negotiations’ progress. “I know you want it to happen overnight. But this thing, this issue, is going to take some time, and we’ve been very clear about that. We’ve been very upfront about how this will take some time.”