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Christopher Hill

September 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday there was a surprise agreement on curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill is the chief U.S. negotiator in the talks among North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. He’s just back from the Beijing meeting and the signing of the agreement. Assistant Secretary, welcome.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it seems like the ink was hardly dry on the agreement when North Korea was already rhetorically bailing out of it.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, the North Koreans have a way of making statements out of Pyongyang; this one was not helpful, certainly inconvenient, but we’re very much focused on moving ahead with the process and I think so are the other participants. So as inconvenient and unpleasant as the statement was, we are assuming we are going forward on this.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, inconvenient, unpleasant, but at what point do you take it seriously enough to think that they’re disavowing the agreement?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, when I left Beijing just yesterday, I shook hands with the North Korean representative and he said, well, we have a lot of work to do and I said yes we do, and I look forward to doing just that. So the North Koreans absolutely know what they signed up to. They know that they signed up to getting rid of all of their weapons and all of their nuclear programs. They signed up to the idea of getting back into the nonproliferation treaty with the safeguards associated with that. And after that, they signed up to the idea that at an appropriate time we would sit down, we the other five, would sit down with them and discuss a light water reactor.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I think that’s the crux of the disagreement, at least from the North Koreans’ statement. They would like to give up whatever they’ve got, their enrichment program, their stockpiles, in return for the light water reactor, but get the reactor first.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, we have made very clear to them and they very well know, they know it from private discussions with all the participants, they know it from the agreement which speaks about an appropriate time, and they know it from the plenary statements of the participants that they have to get out of this nuclear business first. So it’s a little hard for them to swallow. I mean, they’ve been up to this for some two and a half decades now. And they’re just going to have to get used to it, and I’m sure they will and I’m sure we’ll meet as we planned to meet in early November and move onto the next phase.

RAY SUAREZ: This comes from the official North Korean news agency. The U.S. should not even dream of the issue of North Korea’s dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing light water reactors, this is our just and consistent stand, as solid as a deeply rooted rock. It doesn’t sound like they think the same thing that you just said.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I have no doubt that it as solid as a deeply rooted rock on the day they said it.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a split inside the six parties over the critical nature of that phasing whether they get the reactors first and then give up, or the other way around?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: There’s no split at all, and I would draw your attention to another part of the agreement which has South Korea providing conventional power to the tune of 2,000 megawatts. That’s precisely the amount of power that was envisioned in the agreement in the 1990s when we spoke about or when they spoke about light water reactors, so the amount of power that was to be supplied by light water reactors in the 1990 agreement is being supplied by the South Koreans by conventional power.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little about the breakthrough that allowed this agreement to go forward. Up until just hours before this joint draft was signed, several of the parties were saying the talks were on the verge of falling apart.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, these are tough talks. I don’t know if one can speak about a breakthrough; it’s more sort of three yards and a cloud of dust. There are no long passes in this; you just sort of plow your way down the field. And we knew we were getting close, and we knew we were getting closer and closer, and the question was whether in that last day we could solve the remaining differences and it wasn’t easy but we were able to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: What was the People’s Republic of China’s role in bringing you to a document you could all six could sign?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think China did a very good job and I think this entire six-party process has helped us work better with the Chinese, which is very important because that is a country that’s going to be around, and we’re going to have to figure out ways to cooperate with them. China was a full participant; they have their own national positions on things, but they also act as a sort of secretariat, and they were the ones who put together these drafts, there are four drafts, really four and a half drafts, and then they tried to push the sides to agree to them.

The light water reactor issue came up late and it was clearly an issue that the North Koreans were going to make a stand on, they said they have to have light water reactor in the agreement. So we worked very hard with the Chinese to come up with language in the agreement that allowed us to go forward with that.

RAY SUAREZ: Heading into the talks, the conventional wisdom was that you needed the Chinese in there in order to pull the North Koreans along. But is the converse also true; were they a bridge between the North Koreans and the American side, putting demands to the American side as well?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, certainly the Chinese have some influence with the North Koreans; certainly they have more than we do. I mean, they have a lot of economic ties, political ties, et cetera. But we found it was also useful to deal directly with the North Korean side, so we did both. We went through the Chinese and we also dealt directly and sometimes we went through the South Koreans and the Russians who also have some influence with the North Koreans. So I think the Chinese played an important role in that regard. But we had other ways of getting to the North Koreans.

RAY SUAREZ: Were there face-to-face talks between American delegates and the North Koreans that were bilateral?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Within the context of the six-party talks, absolutely. We were all in this large guest house as it’s called; it’s actually a conference center. You’d come in, in the morning; you get your cup of coffee, usually you’d have a bilateral with the Chinese pretty early on, we’d a six-party meeting where we’d all sit around and we’d discuss agenda items, and then we’d go onto bilaterals. We had bilaterals with the South Korean delegation, bilaterals with the Russians and bilaterals with the North Koreans to be sure.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, that doesn’t violate the administration’s real misgivings about speaking directly to the North Koreans?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think what we were concerned about was that we needed to have other players involved in this. This is not a U.S. bilateral issue; this is an issue that involves many other countries, especially the neighbors to North Korea. So when North Korea sits down and reaches an agreement in the six-party talks they’re reaching an agreement with us but they’re also reaching an agreement with all of their neighbors — that has real importance. That has importance in Asia, indeed that has importance everywhere. So that is why we wanted to make sure this didn’t turn into a bilateral process.

RAY SUAREZ: Is your boss, the secretary of state, still hearing very strongly disagreeing and diverse advice on what to do about North Korea?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: You’ll have to ask Dr. Rice what she’s hearing, but I can tell you that I was in very close contact with Dr. Rice; she was very very intimately involved with the entire process, and it was a very important link for me.

RAY SUAREZ: Did this represent at least an evolution in the United States manner of handling North Korea from the first Bush administration?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I think what we have stressed all along is the idea there should be a multilateral process, this is not a by lateral problem. And efforts in the past to deal with this bilaterally have often caused problems, because the North Koreans backed away from an agreement with us. It’s a little more difficult for the North Koreans to back away from an agreement not only with us but with all of their neighbors, and you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your neighbors, and they have to think very clearly about that.

RAY SUAREZ: Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, thanks for being with us.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you.