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U.S. Envoy Christopher Hill Discusses North Korea Nukes Deal

February 15, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Bush used his first news conference of the year yesterday to tout the agreement reached earlier this week to begin curbing North Korea’s nuclear program.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: This is good progress. It is a good first step. There’s a lot of work to be done to make sure that the commitments made in this agreement become a reality, but I believe it’s an important step in the right direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Tuesday, North Korea agreed to shut down, seal, and eventually abandon its Yongbyon nuclear facility. In exchange, the communist country would receive fuel oil and short-term humanitarian aid.

Further, it agreed to work toward the dismantling of its entire nuclear program in return for more fuel oil, aid, and better relations with the U.S. and Japan.

But even within Mr. Bush’s administration, the nuclear accord has already run into conservative criticism. Today’s Washington Post reported that Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams was sending e-mails to other administration officials criticizing aspects of the deal.

The Post reported that the officials who shared those e-mails did so, quote, “because they agreed with the concerns and wanted to make public the depth of disagreement within the administration.”

Abrams reportedly was upset with a provision of the accord that he said would allow North Korea to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism before fully abandoning its nuclear program.

White House Spokesman Tony Snow told reporters today that Abrams’ concerns have been addressed.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: Just as we’ve done with other states, you still have performance requirements before you get de-listed. And I talked with Elliot about that this morning, and he says this has, in fact, satisfied his concerns, and he does support it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the man who served last year as Mr. Bush’s United Nations ambassador has been widely shown on television denouncing the agreement.

JOHN BOLTON, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: I think the six-party talks failed. I think the only solution is the enhanced isolation of North Korea, ultimately bringing the regime down and peacefully reuniting the peninsula.

That’s the course I would advocate, not the illusion that the North Koreans are actually going to follow through on these commitments that they’ve supposedly made. They have no history of that; their entire history is to the contrary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To which the president responded…

GEORGE W. BUSH: I strongly disagree, strongly disagree with his assessment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But such critiques have been echoed by conservative publications. A Wall Street Journal editorial blasted the accord for ignoring, quote, “a couple of decades of broken promises, missile launches, and nuclear tests” by the North Koreans.

The online edition of the National Review magazine asserted, quote, “There’s no obvious reason North Korean President Kim Jong Il will honor the latest agreement” and that the deal amounted to, quote, “a promise from a liar.”

The politics of the deal

Christopher Hill
Assistant Secretary of State
[T]he North Koreans were looking for more fuel oil, and our answer was, 'If you want more fuel oil, we need more denuclearization.'

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with me is Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and the top U.S. negotiator on the North Korea nuclear issue.

Secretary Hill, when this all came down on Tuesday, you were quoted as saying you were very pleased with the agreement. You said this is a solid step forward. Do you still feel that way?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, Assistant Secretary of State: Well, I also said we've got a long way to go. And, to be sure, it's a step forward, but it's a 60-day increment of time.

And during that 60 days, a few things have to happen, including shutting down the reactor, and getting the IAEA inspectors there, beginning to work with us to get a list of all of their nuclear programs, all of their nuclear programs, which will have to be abandoned, pursuant to the agreement in September '05.

So, yes, it's a good step forward, but, you know, there's a lot of steps to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Were you concerned when the state-run North Korean news agency called this a temporary suspension of their nuclear program?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: You know, life is too short to follow everything that the state-run news agency does in Pyongyang. I mean, often they're way off-base, and they do it for various domestic reasons. It has nothing to do with reporting the news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's a lot that's been made about the role of China here. We know that, a couple of days before the agreement was announced, the word was out that it might not happen. Then suddenly, it did happen. What was the breakthrough? Or was there one breakthrough?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, basically it was a conceptual breakthrough. That is, the North Koreans were looking for more fuel oil, and our answer was, "If you want more fuel oil, we need more denuclearization."

So, in this 60-day period during which they take out of commission the reactor, and then we have this additional -- this discussion about their remaining programs, they get one shipment of fuel oil. After that, they're going to get more shipments of fuel oil, contingent on them doing some other things, and those other things have to do with the task of really taking down these facilities, that is, disabling these facilities.

You know, it's important to remember that, as we speak tonight, this reactor is ongoing, and it's producing a substance called plutonium, which is used for bombs. In fact, North Korea already has about 50 kilos of it. And this plutonium, this stays around in this Earth for some 700,000 years.

So we thought it might be a good first step to stop the production of that. And eventually we do want this reactor totally disabled, and decommissioned, and taken apart, but you've got to stop it first, and that's what we're doing.

Oil for disarmament

Christopher Hill
Assistant Secretary of State
I think something people ought to bear in mind is, as opposed to previous deals with North Korea, this is not a bilateral U.S.-North Korean deal. This is a multilateral deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us in brief what happens first. They are going to stop Yongbyon; then they get the fuel oil. Is that what it is?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: The fuel oil, it's a heavy fuel oil. It can only be used in certain power plants that they have. You know, North Korea is energy starved, partly because their government has made such terrible decisions in terms of where they allocate resources.

They don't have enough fuel oil, so parts of the country are in blackouts. That's pretty standard in North Korea. They have problems heating various places.

But I think one has to remember about North Koreans is a very high threshold of pain, alas. And so all of these things, which to many Americans would be intolerable, to North Koreans are simply a matter of their daily lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what happens first, they stop Yongbyon, then they get the fuel oil?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Yes, the fuel oil comes at the end of the 60 days. So what comes first is, in 30 days, there will be a number of working groups that are commissioned, including a working group, a bilateral working group to deal with the Japan-North Korea problem. We will also have a bilateral working group, and we will also address our problems, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they don't get rewards? In other words, they don't get the fuel oil, the other aid, the food, until they've done what they said they're going to do, is that correct?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: That's right. That comes at the end of the 60 days. They get a shipment of 50,000 tons of fuel oil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think they're going to live up to their word? Clearly, I mean, we've just showed you -- you're familiar with all the criticism out there, including inside your own administration, news media, news outlets calling Kim Jong Il a liar. Do you expect this is going to happen?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I think what's important is we're talking about a 60-day period that is -- this is a step for the North Koreans. If they don't want to make it, if they back out of it, we're into another situation.

But I think something people ought to bear in mind is, as opposed to previous deals with North Korea, this is not a bilateral U.S.-North Korean deal. This is a multilateral deal.

And, by the way, we took a lot of flack for keeping it as a multilateral deal. You know, there was a lot of pressure to just turn it into a bilateral deal.

And one of the reasons we wanted to keep it multilateral, one of the reasons the president worked very hard to keep it multilateral, Secretary Rice worked very hard, was that, if the North Koreans walk away from this, they're not just walking away from the United States, where they, you know, invent some reason why they're going to leave the agreement because of something we've allegedly done. They'll have to walk away from all of their other neighbors, including China.

And I must say, China has really worked very hard and worked very closely with us. And if nothing else, this whole six-party process has been very good for U.S.-China relations.

The bank accounts in Macau

Christopher Hill
Assistant Secretary of State
[O]ur Treasury Department looked at this bank, and they saw a lot of funny things going on there. And so they issued a warning to American banks about dealing with this bank.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. had insisted on freezing these North Korean bank accounts in Macau that apparently are very important to the North Koreans. Now the U.S. administration has basically backed down on that. Why?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, first of all, these accounts or this bank was designated -- our Treasury Department looked at this bank, and they saw a lot of funny things going on there. And so they issued a warning to American banks about dealing with this bank.

And that was about 18 months ago. And in the meantime, our Treasury Department has been working with the Macau authorities, where the bank is, to determine how the Macau authorities are reacting to this concern about the quality of the bank.

In the meantime, the Macau authorities froze some bank accounts. So that's been going on for about 18 months, and what we're committed to doing is to try to resolve that in the next month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, at this point, are you satisfy no illegalities on the part of the North Koreans? Or you don't know that yet?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, the Treasury Department has to come forward with their decision on it. But certainly they've had a very good look at this. They've worked very closely with the Macau authorities. They've had access to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of bank records there, so I think the Treasury feels it's in a position to make a decision here.

Facing criticism from inside

Christopher Hill
Assistant Secretary of State
Sixty days is not a lot of time. So I think it's important that we keep to every deadline. If we start missing deadlines, they'll miss deadlines, and before you know it, we won't have a deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You've put a lot of effort into this, Secretary Hill. You were over there in Beijing, five days of talks. You make the announcement. The president's on board. The secretary of state is on board.

You come back, you pick up the newspaper this morning, and the deputy national security adviser, Elliot Abrams, is saying, in essence, that this is a mistake, I mean, at best. He's saying that -- we just told the story that there are -- that it's fatally flawed, in so many words, because it is taking North Korea off the so-called list of state sponsors of terrorism.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, actually, they're not being taken off anything. What we've agreed to do is sit down and discuss this. And we would like to see them taken off, but that's going to depend on how they cooperate with us.

There were some rather well-known terrorist incidents in the 1980s. There was the North Korean bombing of the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983. That has to be addressed. There was the North Korean bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987. That has to be addressed.

So what we've done is to open up a process for dealing with this. We have not taken them off any list.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how do you feel about this criticism coming from inside your own administration?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Look, there are a lot of people who are going to have a lot of opinions. North Korea is a very emotional issue for many people. And, frankly, you know, I do my job. I take my instructions from the secretary of state. And, you know, it's just life in the big city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What happens next here, specifically? I mean, what has to happen in the next few weeks? And when do you think you're going to have a sense that this is really going to work?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, in the next few weeks, we need to get a few things done. We need to organize ourselves for some of these working groups. For example, there's a fuel and energy working group. So we have to see how that whole energy issue is going to proceed.

There's also, most importantly, a denuclearization working group. So we need to see how these reactors can get closed down, sealed, how the IAEA will get back in. There's a lot of work.

Sixty days is not a lot of time. So I think it's important that we keep to every deadline. If we start missing deadlines, they'll miss deadlines, and before you know it, we won't have a deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, very quickly, the value of all this aid to North Korea, if they go through?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, first after all, there's a second trough of about a million tons of fuel oil, and that's sequenced with the North Koreans, in terms of their disabling the reactors and giving a full list, full accounting of all their programs. And that is on the order of about, at current market prices, about $230 million.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Christopher Hill, we thank you very much for talking with us.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.