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.