Ten years ago, Stephen Biegun tutored Sarah Palin on foreign policy. Now he's leading Trump's push to denuclearize North Korea

  • Ten years ago, Stephen Biegun was tapped to tutor first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, then the Republican candidate for vice president, on foreign policy.
  • Now Biegun is once again serving an unconventional politician who ascended to office lacking experience in foreign policy. This time, as the Trump administration's special representative for North Korea, the stakes couldn't be higher.
  • It's a shift from Biegun's predecessor, Joseph Yun, a career diplomat who had served the State Department with postings around Asia. But Biegun's career straddling business and diplomacy could make him exactly the right fit for the president he's serving.
Steve Biegun looks as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces him as special representative to North Korea at the State Department in Washington, DC, on August 23, 2018. 
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
Steve Biegun looks as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces him as special representative to North Korea at the State Department in Washington, DC, on August 23, 2018. 

Ten years ago, Stephen Biegun was tapped to tutor first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, then the Republican candidate for vice president, on foreign policy.

Now, Biegun is once again serving an unconventional politician who ascended to office lacking experience in foreign policy. This time, he's the Trump administration's special representative for North Korea, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

Biegun was named to the position last week. A somewhat unusual selection for the role — he has focused for much of his career on Europe — experts say he may have the precise quality that is needed during the fraught negotiations: an ability to talk with President Donald Trump.

"It's been the case where no one in the State Department has the ability to convey the complexity of this process to the president in a way that he understands and will go along with," said Brett Bruen, who served as the White House's director of global engagement under President Barack Obama.

Bruen said that Biegun, a former Ford Motor Co. executive who served as executive secretary of the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, may have the ability to do just that. It's a shift from Biegun's predecessor, Joseph Yun, a career diplomat who had served the State Department with postings around Asia. But Biegun's career straddling business and diplomacy could make him exactly the right fit for the president he's serving.

"Is it ideal? Is he the person in a perfect world who I would have chosen? No. But in this administration he is better than a lot of alternatives," Bruen said.

As he prepares to guide the Trump administration's chief foreign policy project in Asia, Biegun will have to carefully manage his relationship with a president whose goals experts say are unrealistic, while negotiating with a foreign adversary that has dogged American negotiators for decades.

The State Department has said that Biegun will leverage the negotiating know-how he applied as a vice president at Ford.

Biegun himself has hinted at his negotiating style. In a trade discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute last year, Biegun said he viewed the issue "more from the viewpoint of a practitioner than an ideologue or a philosopher." It's that businesslike approach, coupled with a wealth of experience in foreign policy, that experts expect he could bring to his dealings with North Korea.

The skills Biegun developed at Ford will come in handy, according to Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and U.N. ambassador who has negotiated with North Korea on a number of occasions. But Biegun will also have to learn the particular negotiating style of his North Korean counterparts.

"North Koreans have their own style and wily ways so he should watch his wallet every second of the day," Richardson said. "He should remember two words — timelines and verification."

As foreign policy advisor to then-GOP presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, Biegun learned a lesson about skepticism the hard way. In November 2008, Biegun vetted a call between Palin and whom he thought to be then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The call turned out to be a prank orchestrated by a comedy duo in Canada.

"No one's going to beat me up more than I beat myself up for setting up the governor like that," Biegun said at the time.

Biegun could help talks 'fail safely'

Biegun joined the administration at a fraught time in the nuclear talks. A day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Biegun to the post, Trump scrapped a planned diplomatic trip to North Korea that Biegun and Pompeo had scheduled for this week.

The cancellation was prompted by a letter written by top North Korean officials warning Pompeo that the talks were "again at stake and may fall apart," CNN reported, citing multiple sources.

At this point, it is not a question of whether Trump's negotiations will fail — but how bad the damage will be once they do, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Lewis, a frequent critic of the president, said he thought that Biegun "will help it fail safely."

"You don't need to be a North Korea expert to do that," he said.

Biegun's views on North Korea's nuclear program are not clear.

"The short answer is that there's probably no one with insight on Biegun's positions on North Korea," said Sharon Squassoni, who has advised Congress on weapons of mass destruction and directed the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In a 2007 paper that Biegun co-authored with Jon Wolfsthal, a former on-site monitor at one of the regime's nuclear facilities, the two wrote that nuclear proliferation had an "irreversible momentum."

"Given the difficulty of nuclear rollback, the United States must also prepare itself to operate in a world of greater proliferation," they wrote.

That sentiment is in line with the views of many experts but appears to contrast with the president's own optimism. Following a summit with Kim Jong Un in June, Trump declared that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. Experts speculated that the president and North Korea viewed the meaning of "denuclearization" quite differently.

The State Department did not make Biegun available for an interview or respond to specific questions about his views.

Lewis, who recently authored a speculative novel about the potential for nuclear catastrophe following a breakdown in diplomacy between Trump and Kim, said he was "fine" with Biegun's selection and suggested he was chosen because he is one of few qualified candidates not to have criticized the president.

"Biegun is one of a very small number of normal Republicans who never signed an anti-Trump letter. The pool is pretty shallow, so he gets the job," Lewis said.

Biegun, who spent more than a decade as a foreign policy advisor to members of both chambers of Congress, will also bring discipline to the position, said Bruen, the former Obama official.

"He is a serious, smart foreign policy man who hopefully can bring a degree of rigor to our negotiations with North Korea that they have lacked," Bruen said.

Laicie Heeley, founding editor of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick, said Biegun's lack of experience could mean that the U.S. "will lose time as Biegun gets his bearings and builds the needed relationships."

"My sense is that he'll be a responsible actor, but is perhaps at a bit of a deficit given the need to play catch-up. Which, unfortunately, seems to be a bit of a trend in this administration with regard to North Korea," Heeley said.

The Trump administration has seen a flood of departures in the top ranks of the State Department, including a number of North Korea experts. The departures have raised concerns that the department has been unprepared to deal with the North Koreans, who have had decades to prepare and see the U.S. as an existential enemy. The State Department, pushing back, has said it has a "deep bench" of experts to rely on.

Biegun, for his part, is open about the difficulty of the situation he faces. Standing next to Pompeo on Thursday, Biegun said that "the issues are tough, and they will be tough to resolve."

"But the president has 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," he said.