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View more articles by Jacob Fromer
Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
Update at 18:00 EST: This article has been updated to include comments from experts.
The U.S. special representative for North Korea will face questioning from a panel of lawmakers on Wednesday at a confirmation hearing for the State Department’s number-two position — a key procedural step in what is widely seen as a promotion for the Trump Administration’s top envoy to Pyongyang — according to a notice posted on Monday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Senate hearing for Stephen Biegun, the special representative, is set to come nearly three weeks after President Donald Trump nominated him to become the next Deputy Secretary of State.
It also comes at a fraught moment in U.S.-DPRK relations, with tensions running high in the weeks since Biegun met with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Myong Gil, for a round of rare diplomatic meetings early last month that ultimately produced no results.
The two sides reportedly were unable to agree on nearly any issue that came up — ranging from sanctions relief to the fate of the North’s nuclear program, or even whether they would meet again.
In recent days, Pyongyang has announced through various comments in state media that they would not accept anything less than a comprehensive, substantive deal that ends the current stalemate.
That means potential deal sweeteners like an American liaison office in the North Korean capital or a declaration formally ending the Korean War will not suffice, Kim Myong Gil, Biegun’s counterpart, said in the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) last Thursday.
“Now that we have already informed the U.S. side of our requirements and priority matters, the ball is in the U.S. court,” Kim Myong Gil said.
On Sunday, President Trump broadcast a message to Kim Jong Un on Twitter — his first public outreach to the North Korean leader in months — telling him, “See you soon!” and urging him to “act quickly” to get a deal done.
“I am the only one who can get you where you have to be,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Hours later, a senior North Korean official responded directly to Trump by saying that the North is “no longer interested in such talks that bring nothing to us,” according to KCNA.
“Three rounds of DPRK-U.S. summit meetings and talks were held since June last year, but no particular improvement has been achieved in the DPRK-U.S. relations,” said Kim Kye Gwan, a DPRK foreign ministry adviser. “And the U.S. only seeks to earn time, pretending it has made progress in settling the issue of the Korean peninsula.”
Earlier in the year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced that he would give the U.S. until the end of the year to strike a deal.
That deadline is now less than two months away.
Amid the ongoing tensions, Keith Luse, the Executive Director of the National Committee on North Korea, told NK News that Biegun “would bring a steady hand to the State Department’s operation as Deputy Secretary.”
“He possesses a rare combination of successful public and private sector experience and would be forthright in his dealings with the Congress,” Luse said.
Wednesday’s hearing will give Senators from both political parties a chance to question to the special representative about Trump’s relationship with Kim Jong Un, his intentions for U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula, and even whether he will continue to leave Biegun in charge of diplomacy with Pyongyang.
“Senators haven’t had many opportunities so far to press the Trump administration on North Korea, so they will no doubt use the hearing to probe Biegun as much as possible on North Korea,” Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official working on North Korea, told NK News.
“That could include purely informational lines of inquiry, political grandstanding to make North Korea a possible line of attack in the election, and tough questions about the administration’s approach,” Oba said. “There’s a lot that could happen here.”
Biegun will need the support of a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in order to receive a favorable recommendation from the panel.
The full U.S. Senate would then have to vote on his final confirmation before he can begin his new role.
Featured image: State Department Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs