On Biegun and the midterms

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On Biegun and the midterms


Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the Joongang Ilbo.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun appears in the 2012 HBO movie “Game Change.”

The character appears four times, including one brief moment. “Game Change” is a movie based on the late Senator John McCain’s Republican presidential campaign in 2008.

The film focuses on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who ran as McCain’s running mate. She is briefly popular, but is revealed to be ignorant in foreign affairs. Here, Biegun comes in as a foreign policy tutor for Palin.

I watched this movie again a few months ago, having been reminded of the map that Biegun carried with him last week.

On his way to meet Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha at the foreign ministry, he was holding a map of the Korean Peninsula with detailed place names. In the movie, Biegun spreads out a world map and explains the international situation to Palin. But she only likes spectacular events and images, and Biegun is anguished as he tries to teach her.

Biegun’s map symbolizes two things — pride as a diplomatic professional representing the Republican Party and his adherence to principles. Ten years have passed, and his boss is now President Donald Trump, not Sarah Palin. But the two things didn’t change.

For now, analysts say that even with a Democratic victory in the midterm election, the direction of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy will not change drastically.


Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, left, talks with U.S. special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, right, during a meeting in Seoul on Oct. 30. [AP/YONHAP]

The Democratic Party also insists on diplomatic resolution. It is true that the direction won’t change as the administration has the initiative for the policy.

But that is a superficial analysis. The Democratic Party’s offensive could create a situational change rather than a change of course. Now it’s ready to do anything to take back the administration in 2020. It will dominate all committees in Congress and call Pompeo to the foreign policy committee hearing for every issue.

It will enquire and put the breaks on progress in U.S.-North negotiations and verification. The House Committee on Armed Services will call Secretary of Defense James Mattis and ask when the joint Korea-U.S. military drills will resume.

It will be hard for Congress to pass bills aimed at helping North Korea. For the most realistic change, the North Korean human rights issue is likely to be discussed in the North-U.S. negotiation.

The Democratic Party and American public opinion is already moving in that direction. North Korea would get angry, and negotiations will stall.

With his shakier domestic political footing, Trump will seek a breakthrough from foreign policy, but it won’t be easy to overcome Congress and the resistance of the U.S. bureaucrats with principles. Trump could move onto China or Middle Eastern issues rather than the challenging North Korean affairs. Frankly, I think it’s already late.

Biegun has already witnessed the vices and dangers of “performance politics” and diplomacy of ignorance by Palin — shown in the movie, just as John McCain’s aides regretted selecting Palin.

The regret may have solidified Biegun’s diplomacy of principle, as he reportedly said that the United States would not ease sanctions until North Korea denuclearizes.

Compared to the pathetic diplomacy of the Blue House, which said that Pyongyang’s welcome of President Moon Jae-in was not damaged by its threat to return to the parallel pursuit of military and economic gains, and compared to a high-ranking North Korean official’s arrogant “noodle” comment, I feel Biegun’s claims are far more reliable, logical and reasonable.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 7, Page 30
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