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Trump taps North Korea negotiator for No. 2 job at State Department

Stephen Biegun has led efforts to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear program since last year.
Stephen Biegun has led efforts to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear program since last year. (Lee Jin-Man/AP)
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President Trump nominated Stephen Biegun to become his next deputy secretary of state on Thursday, a move that will place his top negotiator for North Korea in a position to replace Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should he run for the Senate.

Since August 2018, Biegun has led efforts to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear program, a high-wire act that remains a priority for the president.

Biegun will continue to oversee the North Korea talks if the Senate confirms him to become the nation’s No. 2 diplomat, a senior administration official said, but he will leave day-to-day management of the negotiations to his deputy, Alex Wong.

Biegun has maintained favorable relations with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill through blunt closed-door briefings despite overseeing contentious negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that both parties have second-guessed.

He would replace John Sullivan, who Trump has picked to become the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. That job also requires Senate confirmation.

Biegun, 56, a former Ford Motor lobbyist and longtime Republican aide on Capitol Hill, was hired by Pompeo after Trump’s first meeting with Kim in Singapore. After the two sides unveiled a four-point agreement for reducing tensions and denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, Biegun was charged with turning the vague statement into a road map to ending the North’s nuclear threat.

That job has proved difficult as a stalemate persists between the two sides despite three high-profile meetings between Trump and Kim. No U.S. president had ever met with a North Korean leader before the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore. The two countries remain deadlocked over North Korea’s demand for partial sanctions relief in exchange for partial denuclearization, an offer U.S. officials have rejected out of concern that North Korea’s nuclear program would grow during a proposed interim deal.

Pompeo’s future at the State Department has been the subject of continued speculation as he faces persistent questions about his involvement in Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to open investigations into former vice president Joe Biden’s son. Pompeo’s repeated trips to his home state of Kansas this year have only heightened anticipation that he will announce a run for the Senate.

In the event that Pompeo leaves, Biegun could serve as acting secretary of state and would be seen as a candidate for the top job.

During the George W. Bush administration, Biegun served as the National Security Council’s executive secretary under Condoleezza Rice. In 2008, Biegun joined the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and was responsible for briefing his vice presidential running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on foreign policy.

Former U.S. officials released statements in support of Biegun’s nomination Thursday, including former president Barack Obama’s defense secretary, Ash Carter, who called Biegun a “man of integrity and breadth of vision who has always represented the best of American policymaking.”

The secretary of state chose Biegun because he is a “consummate professional,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Pompeo’s thinking. Biegun has won admirers not only within the State Department, but also among government officials who have worked with both Trump and Obama.

While in charge of North Korean negotiations, Biegun worked closely with Robert O’Brien, the former special envoy for hostage affairs who replaced John Bolton as national security adviser. During a trip to Asia earlier this year, Trump and Pompeo traveled to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea accompanied by Biegun, but not Bolton.

In November, Russia is hosting a meeting of diplomats from several nations in the region that U.S. officials hope will kick-start negotiations on denuclearizing North Korea.

Carol Morello contributed to this report.