Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun holds one of the most thankless jobs in the entire U.S. government: negotiating with the irascible North Korea. That would be a mightily difficult responsibility on a normal day, but as special envoy to the North Korea nuclear issue, Biegun has had to juggle a myriad of elements previous envoys were lucky enough to avoid. Biegun has to deal with an inherently chaotic White House with no policy process to speak of; a Kim regime that has firmly established its nuclear deterrent; and a government in Seoul whose short-term priorities are quite different from Washington’s. Biegun may be a professional’s professional, but the deck was stacked against him all along.
With Biegun likely returning to the private sector in about five weeks, the deputy secretary of state spent what will likely be his last trip to South Korea as special envoy in a melancholy mood. Speaking at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, he took a short look back at his tenure, gave his assessment for why the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process hasn’t resulted in anything noteworthy, and explained why he nonetheless remains emphatic that negotiating is the only way out of this decades-long conundrum. And, to emphasize the point further, Biegun advised the incoming Biden administration to keep diplomacy on the table—however hard diplomacy with the North can be.
“As we look to the future, I remain convinced that diplomacy remains the best course, indeed the only course, to solving our challenges with North Korea,” Biegun said. His message to the Biden administration: “The [Korean] war is over. The time for conflict has ended, and the time for peace has arrived. If we are to succeed, we must work together—the United States, the Republic of Korea and the DPRK. And when we do, we will at long last be able to bring to this peninsula the lasting peace and prosperity that all the Korean people so richly deserve.”
Biegun’s speech wasn’t all about hope, however. As someone who has dealt with North Korean officials for years, he didn’t waste any time blaming Pyongyang for the lack of results. If a diplomatic opportunity was created by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s first summit in Singapore, that opportunity was squandered in Begiun’s mind by North Korea’s stubbornness and paranoia. His North Korean counterparts, the envoy said, “too often have devoted themselves to the search for obstacles to negotiations instead of seizing opportunities for engagement.” The Kim regime sent negotiators, Biegun added, who were in fact not authorized to negotiate anything of substance. While Pyongyang may have been willing to mothball the Yongbyon nuclear complex during the Hanoi summit in February 2019, Kim was still asking too much for too little. If there is any blame, it goes completely on the shoulders of the North Koreans.
Of course, this would be a disingenuous take. The Kim regime no doubt did its part to make the entire process difficult, if not intractable. The short-range missile tests and military drills didn’t help the atmosphere for dialogue.
But the United States is not exactly a blameless angel either. The Treasury Department remained hard at work cracking down on North Korea’s banking channels and slapping designations on ships and businesses involved in North Korea’s coal trade—sanctions that have unavoidably had a negative impact on Pyongyang’s creaky health system.
Washington’s bottom-line position of full, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization before diplomatic normalization essentially means that normalization will never occur—a signal to the North if there ever was one that the United States is only interested in turning a new page in bilateral relations if the Kim regime willingly gives up its nuclear insurance policy. And while Biegun professes to support the strengthening of the inter-Korean relationship, Washington has done little if anything to actually support the Moon Jae-in administration’s efforts to improve ties with the North. Indeed, the United States and United Nations Security Council sanctions regimes on Pyongyang are so dense and extensive that they have all but prevented Seoul from fielding its own, sovereign North Korea policy.
Biegun may very well be genuine when he argues that the spirit of the June 2018 Singapore joint statement is still alive. While the overall atmosphere between Washington and Pyongyang looks bleak now, one can’t write off the possibility of an improvement in the future. Crazy things can happen in diplomacy; when Trump and Kim were insulting each other in the press, who would have predicted that these same two men would stroll in the garden together and smile for the cameras less than a year later?
Unfortunately for Stephen Biegun, whether U.S.-North Korea relations deteriorate, stabilize, or improve is out of his control. Despite his valiant efforts, he will leave his position in a month and a half with the situation no better off than when he came into the job.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist at Newsweek and a contributor at the National Interest.