Amb. Christopher Hill Discusses Recent Progress & Next Steps in the 6-Party Talks

March 6, 2007


Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, United States Department of State

Nicholas Kristof
, Columnist, The New York Times

Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, spoke to about progress in the six-party talks on North Korea.

"There's often a tendency to emphasize the importance of regional specialists," observed moderator Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. "In fact I think Ambassador Hill emphasizes, his career emphasizes, the importance of problem specialists, which is really what he is." A career member of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Hill is an expert on the Balkans and speaks Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian and Albanian. He was named head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks in February 2005.
On February 13, 2007, representatives of the six parties, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and the United States, agreed to a "set of initial actions" designed to implement the September 2005 agreement on principles.

The first step requires North Korea to shut down, seal and bring IAEA inspectors in to monitor the Yongbyon reactor, which is "where they are actually, have been up until really right about now, producing more plutonium," Ambassador Hill said. These actions are to be completed within the first 60 days. "Plutonium is a substance that is rather durable. It has a half-life of some 700,000 years. So we thought it would be a good first step to try to shut that down and see that we don't have more plutonium to deal with."
In the second step, North Korea will account to the other parties and the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for the plutonium that's already been produced. "Depending on which expert you talk to, and every expert has at least one and possibly two or three estimates of this," this represents some 50 kilos, which, "we have reason to believe, has been weaponized," he continued.
"And then the third element, which is also very important that we achieve complete clarity on, transparency, and to make sure that it too is abandoned, and that is the highly enriched uranium program."
"Now when we start with something that has actually been done before, because the reactor was shut down for a time, from 1994 to 2002, you get criticism on the right, people who say well this is nothing but the agreed framework, and then on the left, you get people who say well this is nothing but the agreed framework," the ambassador said dryly, referring to the 1994 bilateral agreement between North Korea and the U.S. "We get it kind of from both sides."
However, he pointed out, the February 13 accord goes beyond shutting down Yongbyon. "It's said in the agreement that this is for the purpose of abandonment, because, I want to make it very clear, it's being shut down, but we have several steps, and we intend to get to those steps very soon so that this reactor will no longer exist."
Thus the agreement "lays out the bargain that North Korea will receive more fuel oil, this heavy fuel oil, which will help power some of its electric plants and some industrial facilities, considerable more fuel oil, and in return, North Korea will give us the final declaration of all of their nuclear programs, and will in fact disable the Yongbyon reactor."
The February 13 set of initial actions also commits the parties to setting up five working groups, Ambassador Hill noted:

A U.S.-North Korea working group, "which got under way yesterday afternoon when I sat down with Vice Minister Kim Kye-Gwan and began to discuss the process of normalization between North Korea and the U.S.";

A Japan-North Korea working group;

A denuclearization working group, which will cover Yongbyon, the 5-megawatt reactor, as well as the 50-megawatt and 200-megawatt reactors "largely still on the drawing board," the plutonium already produced, and North Korea's aspirations for a highly enriched uranium program;

An energy and economic assistance working group; and

A Northeast Asian security mechanism working group.
In a separate document, the U.S. agreed to resolve the matter of frozen funds at Banco Delta Asia within 30 days, that is by March 15, the ambassador said. "This is a bank in Macau, a bank that was used as a major node of North Korean external financing, a bank that in the judgment of our experts was involved with considerable money-laundering activities and other activities that our Treasury Department wanted to make sure would not be in any way linked to the American banking system," he explained.
"So we have very short deadlines for this first 60-day period, but we've all felt it's very important to hold to these deadlines, so that no deadlines are missed, and so that when we get to the 60-day deadline, by which time also North Korea should receive a first shipment of fuel oil, fuel oil that the South Koreans have already begun to contract for, that is 50,000 tons, that we can achieve all our deadlines and then move on to this next phase of disablement and full declaration."
Once the reactor is disabled and the declaration is made, "there will be a meeting of the six ministers, six foreign ministers, in Beijing to review the first 60 days, to discuss the upcoming phase, but also to look more broadly, and more far-reachingly, out toward the future, to address the problem of creating a peace mechanism on the Korean peninsula, replacing the current armistice with a peace mechanism, and then also the agreement charges us all with creating a Northeast Asian security mechanism."
 "So, a lot of work to do, but it's a pleasure to be here this morning," the ambassador concluded.

Mr. Kristof asked the first questions:
As you look ahead at things like a verification mechanism, is the skepticism voiced by many, the notion that in a year or two we'll be looking back at this as one more in a history of failed agreements, too bleak?
"Well I hope so," answered Ambassador Hill.
"First of all I think skepticism is a healthy phenomenon," he continued. "This is after all a process that has been going for a couple of decades now and has very little to show for it."
"I would say though that this is the first time we've been able to put all the players together, that is it's not just a bilateral issue between the U.S. and North Korea, we have all the regional players."
"Verification of course is a challenge," especially so "in a country that regards any type of foreign presence with great suspicion," he said. "But if the North Koreans want this, if they feel that this is in their interest, I'm sure we can overcome these problems."
How much consensus is there within the Bush administration on really delivering what the U.S. is called on to deliver?
"Do you think we prefer having a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula?" Ambassador Hill asked.
"I think some people might, frankly," said Mr. Kristof.
"Oh, OK. Well, look, I'm sure you could find such people; I'm not one of them," responded the ambassador. "Frankly, I think, if we can make progress on this, use our model of a multilateral negotiation with bilateral negotiations embedded within the multilateral framework, I think it'll be a very good sign."
"This does not mean that all our problems with North Korea go away, with the abandonment of their nuclear aspirations."
"But I think getting rid of the nuclear aspirations is a very good start, and I know that we could have a relationship with them, albeit a relationship where we will have disagreements on a number of issues as we do with countries throughout the world, but nonetheless I think a relationship that can move forward."
"With nuclear weapons, there's very little we can do in that regard, so with denuclearization, there's a lot we can get done."
On the highly enriched uranium program, could you address the suggestions on various sides that intelligence either was pushed too hard in 2002, or that these days it's been pulled back so as to make it easier to implement a deal?
"What we do know is North Korea purchased a number of centrifuges, together with some manuals, with the probable intent of reverse-engineering these centrifuges and creating a so-called cascade to produce highly enriched uranium," replied Ambassador Hill. The North Koreans also bought a lot of aluminum tubes, "very, very specialized tubes; they also happened to be the tubes that are used in the Pakistani-designed centrifuges."
"This is a lot of money actually. So you have to ask yourself the question, well, if they don't have a highly enriched uranium program, then why did they buy all of this stuff? I mean, this would be awfully expensive, you know, playground equipment."

"So clearly it was something, it works in a centrifuge, and so I think we are owed a pretty complete answer as to why all these purchases were made."
Is there a sentiment that we should have stuck to the agreed framework, given that now the North Koreans have not one or two nuclear weapons, but perhaps 10?
"I think our model of a multilateral agreement is a better agreement," the ambassador responded. "The one sort of ray of optimism that I see from all this is the fact that we've been able to work with like-minded partners including China."
Moreover, the agreed framework "was essentially a nuclear deal, a nuclear-slash-energy deal," whereas in the six-party talks, "it's a broader approach which I think takes into account the historical troubles of this region." Among these is the issue of abductions, which "is something that the Japanese, not only the Japanese government but the Japanese people, need some clarity on," said Ambassador Hill.

"They need to understand what happened. If there are people remaining in North Korea, they need to have those people returned. They need a process; they need a mechanism for dealing with this."
"After all, North Korea's problems, the problem of nuclear weapons in North Korea, is I think a symptom of a deeper state of mind in North Korea, and that has to be changed, and we hope we can do this through the various diplomatic mechanisms that we would be setting up, through the Northeast Asian security process, through an effort to really end the Korean War--it's been decades that we've lived with this armistice, can't we move to a peace mechanism?"
Ambassador Hill added, "The people who took on the agreed framework took it on in an era in which people were talking about war, back in 1993-94. It was a very difficult time, and what they did was they stabilized the situation, and they did it against some really hard, some difficult odds. So I'm the last person to criticize that."
Questions from the audience followed:
Why was no action taken in 1989, when satellite surveillance revealed the first signs of Yongbyon being shut off for potential separation of plutonium?
"First of all, there's an excellent book on this subject," Going Critical by Joel Wit, Daniel Poneman and Robert Gallucci, which "goes into a lot of the history here," said Ambassador Hill.
"We had a process going, and we were able to stabilize the problem. But I think--you can't use presentism, you can't talk about things now and then say well why didn't they do that in 1989, you have to understand what was the mentality in 1989, what else was going on around the world, what were the attitudes toward the program, how was the threat perceived, and how is the, what were the means to deal with it."
Mr. Kristof asked a follow-up question:
Looking at North Korea right now, and obviously you're hoping negotiations are going to succeed, but what are the red lines that we have advised them of?
"Well, I think we have made very clear what, how we would view the transfer of fissile material to another country or to a non-state actor. And so that issue I think poses for us a red line," replied the ambassador.
My sense is that one of the weaknesses in the implementation of the agreed framework was the attitude of Congress, and I'm wondering how you feel about this.
"Right after I returned from Beijing, I think I got back on a Wednesday night and on Thursday I went up to the Congress and I met with as many senators as we could round up in a matter of a few hours," and found "an enormous amount of support," Ambassador Hill said. "If we start missing deadlines and if things start going badly, then I think some of the support will start peeling off. But for now, I was frankly very gratified by it."
You spent four hours with Minister Kim last night. Could you give us some sense of the atmosphere of the talks and how they went?
The atmosphere "was very constructive, very businesslike," the ambassador replied.
"I am sort of disinclined, though, to put the whole issue down to whether the U.S. has been friendly," he added. "I really think that when people build nuclear weapons, they, you don't just, if someone has not been nice to you, your first instinct should not be to go out and build a nuclear weapon. So I'm not sure that's really quite the issue that some people have suggested it is."
Was it a change in the Bush administration's attitude that actually brought about this agreement?
"First of all, it's a set of initial actions, so I'm not doing any victory laps on this," said the ambassador. "We're in the middle of trying to make sure these initial actions actually get done on the ground, so we have a long way to go before we can assess you know what caused this agreement."
"It is interesting that sometimes the North Koreans will say something's important to them and it's important to them until one day that it's not. So I'd be careful about some of those explanations as to what's really important to them."
Does the experience of normalization with Libya offer a template for what you are doing right now?
"You know, unfortunately there's no such thing as a template in diplomacy," Ambassador Hill replied. "Every situation has its own sort of historical antecedents."
"I think Libya had a, made a fundamental and firm and final decision one day, which was to get out of this nuclear business. I think for the North Koreans it's going to be more of a step-by-step process."
Mr. Kristof asked:
Do you have the sense that there really has been a basic decision on the part of the North Koreans as opposed to just a tactical effort to sort of string this out through the rest of the Bush presidency?
"I don't see the latter," the ambassador said.
"I think they understand that things aren't going to get better for them in two years. I don't think any American administration can, you know, ignore nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula."
"These nuclear weapons are costing that country enormously in terms of isolation, impoverishment," he added. "So I think there is a real logic for them to get out of it. But whether logic will prevail, or whether it's always the most operative element in these things, is hard to tell."
Which working group will deal with the peace mechanism for the Korean peninsula?
The "directly related parties" will address this--it will be outside the working-group structures, Ambassador Hill replied.
"Who are the directly related parties? We suspect that it's first of all the two Koreas; secondly, the U.S. and China, as signatories to the armistice. So we would believe it would be a four-party activity, but we'll discuss that," he concluded.

--Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Business, Policy

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