By David Brunnstrom and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday nominated U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, a widely respected foreign policy veteran, to become the next deputy secretary of state.
A U.S. official said Biegun would retain his responsibilities for diplomacy with North Korea. Biegun would replace John Sullivan as the State Department’s No. 2 official. Sullivan has been nominated to be the next ambassador to Russia.
Biegun’s nomination enjoys broad support and he is also regarded as a plausible acting secretary of state by senior current and former U.S. diplomats should Secretary of State Mike Pompeo choose to step down to run for a Senate seat neat year.
News reports have said Pompeo, a former Republican congressman, is mulling a U.S. Senate run. He has declined to rule one out while saying he would serve in his post as long as Trump wanted him to.
Pompeo said he was “glad” to hear of Trump’s intent to make the nomination.
“Steve has been and will continue to be an effective leader on #DPRK efforts. His expertise in this new role will be good for @StateDept and America,” he tweeted, referring to North Korea by the acronym for its official name.
Biegun, 56, has led working-level denuclearization talks with North Korea, which have stalled since a failed second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February.
North Korea fired two suspected missiles into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan on Thursday, according to military officials in Japan and South Korea, ending nearly a month-long lull in testing.
The launches, which Japanese authorities identified as likely ballistic missiles, were the first since talks between the United States and North Korea ended without an agreement on Oct. 5 in Sweden. Biegun led the U.S. team at those talks.
North Korea’s state news agency said the launches had been a successful test of super-large multiple rocket launchers and that Kim Jong Un had “expressed satisfaction” and congratulated the scientists involved.
Despite the lack of progress in talks with North Korea, Biegun — who is primarily a Russia specialist and worked for decades as congressional staffer and as a White House foreign policy aide under President George W. Bush — is a highly respected diplomat. Before taking the North Korea job last year, he was a Ford Motor Co
ENTHUSIASTIC BIPARTISAN ENDORSEMENTS
On Thursday, the State Department shared a list of enthusiastic endorsements from former U.S. officials, including senior figures from the previous administration of Democratic President Barack Obama and North Korea experts.
Denis McDonough, a White House chief of staff and deputy national security adviser under Obama, called Biegun “a patriot and an experienced, people-focused leader who knows and values the Foreign Service and a strong State Department.”
Daniel Russel, who served as Obama’s top diplomat for Asia, said he welcomed Biegun’s nomination.
“Having worked with him both in and out of government over the past 20 years, I have been impressed by his leadership, professionalism, integrity and patriotism, as well as his negotiating skills and mastery of complex diplomatic and commercial issues.”
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Biegun “an excellent choice.”
Trump has sought to play down North Korea missile launches this year, saying they were of short-range weapons, while Pyongyang has stuck to a freeze in tests of nuclear bombs and long-range missiles.
“We are aware of reports of a North Korean missile launch. We are continuing to monitor the situation and consulting closely with our allies in Japan and South Korea,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said on Thursday of the latest launches.
U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia said North Korea was engaged “in increasingly escalatory behavior” and that the launches had directly threatened the safety of U.S. military personnel in Japan.
He said such serious provocations deserved global condemnation and called for an upgrading of joint military exercises with allies and the deployment of additional U.S. military assets to deter Pyongyang. He also urged Congress to quickly pass bipartisan legislation he has introduced to impose additional sanctions on North Korea.
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a leading candidate in the Democratic presidential nomination race to face Trump in 2020, said the launches were evidence of the failure of Trump’s efforts with North Korea.
“These tests are a stark reminder that Donald Trump — a self-proclaimed deal maker — has achieved nothing but a string of spectacular diplomatic failures that are making the American people less safe,” he said.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Arshad Mohammed and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Grant McCool, Tom Brown and Sandra Maler)