U.S. Representative to North Korea talks diplomatic challenges

Sunday, September 8, 2019 - 5:51pm

Stephen Biegun spoke at a packed Rackham Auditorium Friday afternoon as the inaugural speaker in a launch series organized to celebrate the opening of the Weiser Diplomacy Center, hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy.

Stephen Biegun spoke at a packed Rackham Auditorium Friday afternoon as the inaugural speaker in a launch series organized to celebrate the opening of the Weiser Diplomacy Center, hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy. Buy this photo
Asha Lewis/Daily

Since North Korea began building their nuclear arsenal, maintaining diplomacy with North Korea has been a point of contention in the United States. The individual tasked with the challenge of negotiating U.S. diplomatic efforts with North Korea is U.S. Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun. He spoke at a packed Rackham Auditorium on Friday afternoon as the inaugural speaker in a launch series organized to celebrate the opening of the Weiser Diplomacy Center, hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy.

Biegun serves on behalf of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and directs all U.S. policy talks on North Korea, leads negotiations and spearheads U.S. diplomatic efforts with allies and partners. Previously, Biegun worked as a foreign policy advisor to members of Congress and was formerly the vice president of International Governmental Relations for Ford Motor Company.

Public Policy Dean Michael Barr introduced the series and explained the significance of the Ford Public Policy talks and fostering conversation in polarizing political times.

“As you well know, these are challenging times in our nation, with fractious political discourse, gridlock and partisanship and increasing lack of trust in institutions everywhere,” Barr said. “It is in moments like this when the craft of diplomacy is even more essential.”

Biegun said that while he had a long career in public service, he had no intention of returning to government. But since the role of the U.S. Representative to North Korea was the first of its kind, Biegun couldn’t resist such a historic position. 

“I was quite happy with a job I love at the Ford Motor Company, located just up the road,” Biegun said. “But last year I accepted the challenge from Mike Pompeo to take up and carry forward a remarkable diplomatic opportunity by President Trump 15 months ago.”

Biegun continued to describe the several diplomatic plans laid out after the historic June 2018 summit in Singapore. Chairman Kim Jong Un of North Korea and U.S. President Donald Trump released a joint statement after the summit addressing the four pillars upon which future diplomacy would be built. Denuclearization was only one aspect of their diplomacy objectives, Beigun said..

Biegun broke down the four pillars. He said both of the leaders are committed to transform the relationship between the two countries. Additionally, the two leaders are committed to establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. The third pillar was the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Biegun emphasized how denuclearization was “only part of our objectives in this diplomacy”.

Finally, the fourth pillar was the humanitarian initiative, which will enable the U.S. to work with North Korea and other countries to recover fallen soldiers in the Korean War. Biegun said the two countries also expanded the humanitarian initiative to “include finding ways for Koreans inside and outside North Korea to reunify and meet each other after long periods of division.”

 Following the discussion, Rackham student Ryan Van Wie presented an audience question submitted during the event which asked how human rights plays into the U.S. diplomacy, given North Korea is a major violator of human rights.

Biegun noted that while human rights have been a cause of tension for the United States and North Korea, it is not a diplomatic priority.

“My negotiating priority is not the human right records of North Korea,” Biegun said. “My negotiating priority starts with the elimination of the grave weapons of mass destruction in the North Korean peninsula.”

Another audience question asked about the multiple short-range missiles North Korea has launched in the past few months and how that has affected U.S. diplomatic policy. Biegun dismissed these missile tests as the result of North Korea feeling threatened by the military presence of other countries in the Korean peninsula.  

“So the threat is there, the risk is there,” Biegun said. “The challenge is to find a way through diplomacy to resolve it. The President has made it clear that short range missiles don’t make him happy but it’s not going to disrupt our efforts in order to engage diplomatically to resolve the very issues that we are referring to.” 

Public Policy senior Stavroula Kyriazis was excited to hear from a prominent political figure on campus. She told The Daily after the event, that she thought the talk was important, especially for students who want to pursue similar career paths. 

“I think it’s very inspiring, at least for students in the Ford School of Public Policy, for someone so prestigious to take his time to actually speak with us,” Kyriaszis said. “It shows us a lot of respect and motivates to get into the field like that.”

LSA senior Sophia Kim also expressed her excitement for the lecture to The Daily. She said she appreciated how honest she felt Biegun was in regard to his diplomacy steps.

“I thought it was eye-opening in the sense where you get to hear what he’s done and what he plans to do,” Kim said. “I know he’s only been there for a year or so but it’s good to see that they’re trying to make strides.”

While Biegun didn’t delve into the specifics of the administrations’ diplomacy, he emphasized the only way forward is for North Korea to be willing to completely denuclearize their military arsenal.

“We are aware that this diplomatic opening is fragile — we fully understand the consequences if diplomacy fails,” Biegun said. “For us to make progress towards peace and to take major steps to transforming our relationship, North Korea must be willing to fulfill its commitment to achieve denuclearization.”

Moving forward while balancing the several diplomatic pillars the two countries have set out, Biegun explained the obstacles in dealing with North Korean diplomacy are ever changing.

“It’s a surprise a minute and we are just going to do our very best to work with it,” Biegun said.