Howes: Trump taps Detroiter schooled in Russia as North Korea envoy

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co.'s retiring vice president for international governmental affairs, Steve Biegun, will be the nation's special representative to North Korea.

As retirement spots go, North Korea probably wouldn’t be high on anyone’s list — except maybe Steve Biegun.

The soon-to-be retired Ford Motor Co. executive, named Thursday as the nation's special representative for North Korea, is set to head to Pyongyang next week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, up to now President Donald Trump's interlocutor with the so-called Hermit kingdom. 

Not bad for a native Metro Detroiter, University of Michigan grad, Detroit Institute of Arts board member and die-hard Red Wings fan. A third-generation Ford employee, Biegun, 55, spent nearly the past decade heading international governmental affairs for Ford following a series of big foreign policy jobs in Washington.

He served as executive secretary of President George W. Bush's National Security Council, chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, national security adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist — and, for a whirlwind of roughly 60 days, foreign policy adviser to Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Arguably perfect credentials, those, for negotiating the house of mirrors that is Kim Jong-un's North Korea, the focus of Trump's most audacious foreign policy gamble so far as president. All Biegun is expected to do is help close a deal that has eluded presidents dating all the way back to Harry Truman.

"The issues are tough, and they will be tough to resolve," Biegun said Thursday after his introduction by Pompeo. "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.

"This begins with the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea as agreed by Chairman Kim Jong-un at the summit with President Trump in Singapore" — no easy feat considering North Korea's well-documented penchant for agreeing to concessions in exchange for sanctions relief ... only to restart its nuclear program.

How and whether this time will be any different is Biegun's assignment amid increasingly unambiguous signs that North Korea has developed nuclear warheads and the inter-continental ballistic missiles to deliver them. If there's a single reason for Kim to pivot from nuclear development to economic engagement, skeptics say, it's because North Korea's new-found capability is achieving parity — and "respect" — with nuclear rivals.

That kind of geo-strategic urgency, coupled with Great Power jostling by China, Russia and the United States on the Korean peninsula, is one explanation for Trump's incendiary, "fire-and-fury" rhetoric in response to Kim's threats. The others: the president's proclivity for tough-guy talk, as well as an innate sense that weak diplomatic appeasement only invites aggression from some of the world's toughest customers.

Biegun is not a North Korea expert by training. He studied Russian during his years in Ann Arbor. After the fall of the Soviet Union, his Ford bio says, he spent two years in Moscow as resident director of the International Republican Institute, a democracy-building organization. And he used jobs on Capitol Hill and in the White House to build a reputation that put him on Republican short lists for ambassador to Russia and national security adviser.

The Russia background should come in handy, and some of its sharpest skills should be transferable to the North Koreans. The savviest Russia hands pay more attention to what the adversary does and less to what it says; they understand history and its grievances inform present and future aspirations; they know diplomacy disconnected from power is too often exploited. 

If the history of American wrangling with the Kim clan's North Korea over the past 60 years show anything, it's that diplomatic agreements without enforcement produce cheating. And that undermines security in a crowded corner of northeast Asia shared by some of America's closest allies and its biggest adversaries.  

Said Pompeo: "The State Department has already done excellent work in implementing and sustaining the pressure campaign, putting together the first-ever leader-level summit in Singapore, and laying the groundwork to hold North Korea accountable to the promises that Chairman Kim has made. As the special representative, Steve will lead negotiations and spearhead diplomatic efforts with our allies and partners."

Is that all? Yes, not bad for a guy from Detroit whose success would be shared by every American. Good luck, Steve.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.