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Disarming Presence: U.S. Envoy Negotiates Fine Line With North Korea
The Washington Diplomat / December 2008

By Larry Luxner

Thirty-four years ago — long before anyone had ever heard of microcredits, ethnic cleansing or the North Korean nuclear threat — fresh-faced Peace Corps volunteer Christopher Hill arrived in rural Cameroon, ready to change the world.

But the young idealist couldn't do it without his trusty Suzuki 125cc dirt bike.

"With that motorcycle, I was able to get around to 28 villages and credit unions. My job was to audit and check their books to make sure all the money people made from selling coffee or tea was available for loans," Hill said, fondly recalling his two years in Africa. "It was a very good program, and for anyone just graduating from college and going out into the world, the Peace Corps is a great way to make a difference in people's lives."

In the ensuing three decades, Hill's diplomatic career has indirectly touched thousands of lives in a variety of troubled regions — from Kosovo, where he served as U.S. special envoy in 1998 and 1999, to the Korean peninsula, where as U.S. ambassador in Seoul his disarming wit and down-to-earth demeanor earned the respect and admiration of average Koreans.

Tami Overby, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Korea, said Hill served the shortest term of any of the six ambassadors during her 18 years in Seoul but had the most impact. "He was a rule-breaker, always willing to challenge," she told the Washington Post three years ago.

Today, Hill's official title is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the U.S. State Department. But since assuming his current position after only eight months on the job in Seoul — at the urging of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — people have come to think of the 56-year-old career diplomat as our point man on the six-party talks over North Koreaνs nuclear program.

"East Asia and the Pacific is a big region, but I've ended up having to spend a big part of my time on North Korea," says the understated Hill, a diehard Boston Red Sox baseball fan whose responsibility covers an enormous chunk of Asia from Burma to Japan, and more than a dozen countries in between, including China.

On Oct. 28, Hill took 40 minutes from his hectic schedule — which includes constant back-and-forth travel to Asia — to speak with The Washington Diplomat, which for the first time profiles an American official on its cover. (The occasion also marked the first time this reporter interviewed Hill since 1991, when the diplomat was stationed at Albania's Dajti Hotel as he prepared to reopen the U.S. embassy in Tirana after a 45-year absence).

During The Diplomat's exclusive interview, Hill discussed the Bush administration's Oct. 11 decision to remove North Korea from its blacklist of terrorist-supporting states — and the difficulties of trying to talk to a closed-off country in general.

"We took a very hard look at North Korea's presence on the list, and it was our determination that it was eligible to come off," Hill told us. "We have not seen examples of North Korea's support for terrorism or terrorist groups. North Korea has also signed onto various United Nations anti-terrorism conventions, so we felt the time was right."

The move came shortly after Pyongyang suspended inspections of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, angry it had not yet been removed from the list. Although welcomed as a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations, the decision was clearly a gamble given Pyongyang's yo-yo track record — which includes the detonation of a small nuclear device in 2006 that stunned the world, followed two years later by a dramatic explosion of the reactor's cooling tower in June to symbolize the North's willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

At the same time though, Pyongyang was allegedly involved in supplying nuclear technology to a top-secret military facility under construction in Syria.

"There was a lot of evidence that North Korea had a hand in that," Hill said of the facility, which was reportedly destroyed by Israel over a year ago. "But there's also evidence that North Korea is not active in any other countries today. It's something we continue to monitor with great vigilance."

As the top U.S. negotiator with the reclusive regime of Kim Jong-il — the cult-like "dear leader" whose health is a constant source of speculation — Hill is a crucial link in the delicate six-party talks that also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Hill's skills as a negotiator were honed during his years in the Balkans, where after Albania he went on to serve as U.S. ambassador in Macedonia, eventually working with Richard Holbrooke to negotiate the Bosnian peace settlement at the Dayton peace talks in 1995.

Hill was later sent to war-torn Kosovo to try to bring about a settlement there as well. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Poland before moving on to Asia.

On June 21, 2007, Hill became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit North Korea in five years, when he flew into Pyongyang on a small jet as part of a two-day visit that had been arranged with the utmost secrecy. He has since been to North Korea two more times, with the most recent trip in October.

Asked his impressions of the hermit-like country, Hill said it "has a lot of difficulties, chief among them is the fact that the economy is not functioning — certainly not in a way the Korean people have a right to expect it to."

He added that North Korea's removal from the State Department terrorist list is a sign that if Pyongyang's communist leadership continues moving forward along the course of denuclearization, "good things will happen" for the communist-controlled, impoverished country, where the per-capita gross national income is estimated at around $1,100 per year.

"The North Koreans should understand the decision to remove them from the list is a sign of our willingness to improve our relationship, provided they're willing to get out of the business of nuclear weapons," Hill said.

North Korea is believed to possess 30 kilograms to 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, as well as enriched uranium and the ability to export nuclear technology.

"We've told them that if they do away with their nuclear weapons program and rejoin the nonproliferation treaty, we are prepared to recognize their state and have a normal relationship," the U.S. envoy explained. "We are also prepared to help them get into international organizations and participate in generous economic assistance. This is not to say all our problems with North Korea would go away, but certainly the major impediment to ties would be removed."

Don Oberdorfer is chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. He applauds Hill's perseverance at "averting something much more dangerous" by winning an agreement with Pyongyang sooner rather than later.

"Hill did a wonderful job in getting negotiations going with North Korea at a time when he had to work against quite a headwind of people who did not want to do that," said Oberdorfer, who was a Washington Post diplomatic correspondent for 25 years and has been to Pyongyang several times.

"But my view is, what were the alternatives? From the very beginning, Hill has taken the position that we should try to work things out through negotiations, and he's a negotiator — that's what he's good at. How it ultimately comes out we don't know, and we won't know for quite some time."

Oberdorfer said that even though the North Korean regime has "some residue of nuclear materials, they can't do anything with this material unless they go into a different phase of manufacturing weapons, which we would certainly know about."

Others though take a less enthusiastic view of "delisting" North Korea from the U.S. list of rogue terrorist states.

"It's largely symbolic," says Michael Green, an associate professor at Georgetown University and Japan chair at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There are over a dozen sanctions on North Korea that prevent any meaningful aid from flowing to that country. The [end of] terrorism sanctions would mostly loosen up World Bank and IMF funding, but that would require North Korea to provide large amounts of data and transparency. So on the substance, it's not a huge concession."

Kim Dae-jung, former president of South Korea, goes even further. In a scathing editorial, he accused Hill of caring more about his own media image than about the security of South Korea, whose people he said have been betrayed.

"Launched vigorously by branding the North part of an 'axis of evil,' that is how the Bush administration's dealing with North Korea end: not with a bang but a whimper," he wrote. "The biggest cause was the impatience to save at least something after the administration took such heavy blows in Iraq and Afghanistan, and took a full hit in the financial crisis at the end of its term. Added to it was Hill's own desire for heroism."

On the flip side, critics of Bush's famous "axis of evil" label charge that the diplomatic rapprochement with North Korea essentially managed to get the United States back to where it was with the Clinton-era accord, which the Bush administration let collapse when intelligence surfaced that the North was again trying to enrich uranium.

As the main architect of U.S. engagement with the North, Hill gets flak from all sides, whether it's not doing enough, or offering too many concessions. It's a predicament Green said he understands, having been involved in a number of bilateral and multilateral negotiations with the North Koreans while on staff at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2005.

"I have great sympathy for anybody trying to come to an agreement with North Korea because it always falls short of expectations in Washington," he said. "You never get 100 percent with North Korea, but to get this last stage done, we have done considerable damage to our credibility with a key ally and made it more difficult for the next administration to get the full declaration we had intended."

That key ally, he said, is Japan — where a chorus of media voices from the far left to the far right have been "uniformly opposed" to this move.

"Questions are now being raised in Japan about how credible our nuclear umbrella is, when we don't keep our commitments on negotiating with North Korea. Many Japanese commentators say the U.S. has betrayed Japan," Green pointed out.

"On June 26, the president said he would not delist without credible verification procedures. He was quite adamant on that, because we had compromised our demands numerous times up to that point," Green continued. "It was eventually whittled down to the plutonium facility at Yongbyon. The agreement finally reached is extremely vague, and although the specifics will be confirmed by the six parties, it remains to be seen if that will happen. For now, it's hard to see why North Korea would now agree to something it didn't agree with before — especially now that it's already received sanctions delisting, which was its main demand. I think the damage can be repaired, but it's going to take time."

Concluded Green: "If the six parties agree to specific verification measures, then I think Ambassador Hill's approach will be vindicated, because the Japanese will be satisfied and the process will have moved one step closer to disabling of North Korea's overall nuclear programs. All eyes are now on the six-party process."

And that process — hugely consequential and highly technical, involving details from permission to take environmental samples to reviewing tens of thousands of pages of operating records — has been fraught with progress one moment and frustration the next.

Yet Hill, an approachable, candid diplomat, seems to take the hiccups in stride. Now that North Korea at least no longer officially supports terrorism — leaving only Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria on that infamous list — we asked Hill what the next step is.

"After we complete the disarmament of their nuclear facilities and as we move to verify their declaration, we would hope to go onto the next phase, which would be to get North Korea to agree to give up the nuclear materials they've already produced," he says. "From these facilities that are no longer working, they produced in early 2000 fissile material which could be used for making bombs. That material, as part of their overall commitment, needs to be turned over to the international community."

At the same time, concerns mount over the worsening food crisis in North Korea, which is reportedly suffering from mass starvation.

"We try to keep food and humanitarian assistance separate from the nuclear talks," Hill says. "There's no question North Korea is experiencing severe problems with food production, though opinions differ as to how severe. Our president has made very clear that we have no quarrel with the North Korean people."

When Hill isn't dealing with North Korea — which is almost always — he faces a number of other challenges, not the least of which is the People's Republic of China.

"China is an enormous country with an enormous number of challenges and a great deal of diversity," he told The Diplomat. "It has pockets of extraordinary growth and entrenched poverty. Whatever people think about China, it is going to be a factor in East Asia and throughout the world. During my tenure here, we have spent a great deal of time working with the Chinese on issues that involve Africa, like Darfur, and Iran. We have a very broad, intense relationship with China. One hopes that relationship will be understood by the next administration."

Hill says it's also important not to lose sight of Washington's improving relations with other Asian allies such as Indonesia — which he's visited six times — as well as Australia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

"Indonesia is a very large country with over 200 million people," he says. "They've always been a good member of the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] community, so we try to stay in close contact with them. We also have some new partners such as Vietnam, which has come a long way. Our relationship with Vietnam is really expanding on all fronts."

One major disappointment though has been Burma, a human rights disaster that Hill described as having probably "the most promise" in all of Asia — something it never lived up to.

"It's been very important for us to work with the ASEAN countries to try and address Burma's shortcomings," he says. "We have made it clear that as Burma responds to our concerns, we will respond appropriately. We think Burma needs to get moving on its human rights record and do a better job of dealing with the aspirations of its people."

He adds: "I think that generally, the United States is very well-received in East Asia. We have a long history there. I inherited some good relationships there, and I hope I'll be passing onto my successor some of them. In many ways, the U.S. is a Pacific country, so much of our economy is linked to the region. So it's very important that we maintain those special relations."

Although Hill says he's very proud to have represented his country as a career diplomat for the last 31 years, looking back his record is tinged with sadness.

"To be sure, there were moments of great frustration. One of them was the fact I was not able to negotiate an arrangement in 1999 that prevented military action in Serbia in relation to the Kosovo crisis," he says. "Nonetheless, I felt my team and I did all we could do. I was also very proud to have played a role in opening up our relations with Albania — a small country in the Balkans which had seen its last American official leave in 1946."

The veteran diplomat declined to speculate what his role might be in the next administration. Nor did he choose to discuss the legacy of President Bush or the foreign policy platform advocated by incoming President Barack Obama. He did, however, flatly reject the notion that America shouldn't talk to its enemies — a theme that came up again and again during the long and bitter election campaign.

"I think Iνm sort of an old-fashioned guy, and believe that force should be a last resort and diplomacy should be a first resort. Trying to talk to your adversaries is an essential part of diplomacy. I wish we only had friends in the world — it would be a very easy place to live in. Diplomats such as myself need to realize that on some occasions, it doesn't work. It's not appropriate. But I would argue that it should be given a try."

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