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U.S. Envoy Defends Diplomacy in North Korea

July 23, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Hopes were high that a second breakthrough would follow last week’s announcement by North Korea that it had indeed shut down its main nuclear reactor. But six-party talks that followed about setting a timeline for what comes next wrapped up without an agreement.

After returning from Beijing, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill told reporters in Washington today that he still hoped a second disarmament phase could be completed this year.

CHRISTOPHER HILL, Assistant Secretary of State: I wanted to see us putting out a sort of target time frame. But given how we missed every deadline in the spring, I didn’t think it was something I really should push on. We’re discussing very much the issues at hand, and I think that’s a good sign that we can make progress on denuclearization.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last February, the countries that make up the six-party talks — the U.S., North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia — reached a deal. North Korea agreed to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facility and all other nuclear programs and open the secretive country to international inspectors in return for aid, trade and improved diplomatic relations.

That agreement came four months after North Korea announced on state television that they had exploded a nuclear device. Another round of six-party negotiations is scheduled for September.

For more on all of this, I’m joined by Ambassador Christopher Hill. He is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He is the top negotiator with North Korea.

Ambassador Hill, good to have you with us again.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you very much.

The First Step

Christopher Hill
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State
I think it is very important that it was shut down on the basis of a six-party agreement, that is, this is not just the deal with the U.S. It's a deal with China, South Korea, with Russia, with Japan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How significant a breakthrough was it that the North Koreans actually shut down this reactor?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, you know, the reactor has been shut down before. It was shut down up until five years ago, so you could argue it's not a breakthrough. But I think it is very important that it was shut down on the basis of a six-party agreement, that is, this is not just the deal with the U.S. It's a deal with China, South Korea, with Russia, with Japan.

So I think that is significant, that it was done according to a multilateral deal. But how important a step it is will depend on the steps that follow, because for us this is really a first step. And insofar as we're able to follow it up and really get this thing not only shut down, but disabled, dismantled and the weapons returned, then it's a very big deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So in the entire scheme of what the United States wants North Korea to do, this is, what, just a small percentage of that?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: It's a first step. I mean, it's a step without which you can't make additional steps, so I'm not going to minimize it, but it's a first step. And we've got many more steps on this journey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you had further meetings last week. Are you disappointed that you weren't able to agree on a time frame for the rest of the year?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I'll tell you, right after the shutdown of this reactor -- and, by the way, it wasn't just a reactor. It's a whole nuclear complex, so a big, big thing to happen. I would have liked to use it as sort of a springboard onto a next set of actions.

But I think, from the North Korean point of view, it was a big deal, and they want to kind of digest it before moving on. And actually, that kind of works, because we've got a lot of working groups we need to pull together. And then we're going to meet all again in about a month and see if we can take this to the next level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you announced that these working groups are meeting. What are the next steps that you'd like to see the North Koreans take?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, for example, there are two aspects, two issues that they've got to take in the next phase. One is to give us a full declaration of all their nuclear programs, this full declaration...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how hard is that going to be?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, it's tough, because they've got to divulge some information about things -- you know, this is not a terribly open society. They're not used to telling you what you want to know. But we cannot have a declaration that's less than full; that's going to be a big deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you think -- excuse me. Go ahead.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, getting a full declaration, we need to get that, and we need to work with them in the working groups to make sure that, when they put it down, it's the real thing.

The second is, they are committed to disabling these nuclear facilities, so we have to have a pretty clear idea of what's "disabling." Are you cutting certain drive chains? Are you drilling a hole in the side of the reactor? What are you actually doing to disable the thing so that it can't be brought back online? Again, that's something that needs to be worked out in the working group. And when we have options there, we'll be able to sit down, once again the six parties, probably at the end of August, to try to hammer this through.

Setting goals for 2008

Christopher Hill
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State
I like to think that they understand that they're not going to have a normal existence with anybody in the world as long as they're holding onto nuclear weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I heard you say today that you think that these things can be agreed on by some time in 2008. So you think the North Koreans are prepared to do this?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, you know, we're doing this one step at a time. And a lot of people didn't think they would shut down the reactor. They did shut down the reactor. They reiterated that they're prepared to give us the full declaration and the full disablement, but, you know, the devil will be in the details. We've got to work that through. I think they're willing to do that.

And then, let's say we get that all done by the end of this calendar year, '07. Then we're left with the issue of, they have produced already some plutonium that is fissile material. That's got to come under our control and be taken out of the country. They've also got some explosive devices that have been gotten under control. So that's something we're hoping to do in calendar year '08. So we've got a long way ahead of us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why the change in attitude on their part? I mean, is that how you see this? Is that what this was?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I like to think that they understand that they're not going to have a normal existence with anybody in the world as long as they're holding onto nuclear weapons. And I'd like to think they've kind of gotten the point that, you know, they don't have much of a future with these nuclear weapons.

I mean, frankly, no one will do business with them. No one will treat them normally. And we've made very clear, if they want to normalize with us, they shouldn't expect to do it while they have nuclear weapons. So the fact that we have the six-party framework, we've got China saying the same thing to them, we have Russia saying the same thing to them. And I think it's worth pointing out that we've had some pretty good cooperation with Russia with respect to this six-party thing.

So perhaps it's because they've been getting the same message from everybody that they finally understood that it's time to move.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said you'd like to think that that's what they think, but you're not sure?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, you know, I'm very cautious person, being a diplomat. I'm very careful about what I think. But I'd like to think that the Russians understand that this is a very important, important endeavor that we're doing. We've had very good cooperation. And, certainly, the North Koreans understand that everybody, everyone, was united on this.

The role of the Chinese

Christopher Hill
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State
We cannot have this little country in northeast Asia causing all of this commotion with these nuclear weapons. We cannot have a situation where North Korea is able to have nuclear weapons, and then other countries will want to have nuclear weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the role of the Chinese?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: The role of the Chinese was very important. You know, North Korea depends on China in many respects. North Korea really cannot survive without a good relationship with China. And yet China, especially after the North Koreans did that nuclear test in October of '06, I think China made very clear to North Korea they expect them to move on denuclearization. And that's been very important to us.

You know, a lot of what we're doing here -- and people often focus on the U.S.-North Korea relationship, the fact that we've had more meetings than we did in the past, the fact that, for example, we had a trip to Pyongyang just a few weeks ago. A lot of people focused on that. But I think the real story here is the degree to which the U.S. and China have been working together on this problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is it about the U.S.-China relationship that's caused this to happen?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I think the Chinese understand this is a big deal for us. I mean, we cannot have this little country in northeast Asia causing all of this commotion with these nuclear weapons. We cannot have a situation where North Korea is able to have nuclear weapons, and then other countries will want to have nuclear weapons.

And I think, from China's point of view, they have the exact same view, so we've been able to work closely with China. And I think as we cooperate on this issue, my hope is we can cooperate more closely on some other issues that are important to us, for example, what we're trying to do with China in Darfur and Sudan and what we're trying to do with China in Iran and other places. I think this is a diplomatic process with the Chinese that could pay off in other areas with the Chinese.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is this the Chinese doing a favor for the United States?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: No, no, this is the Chinese understanding that we have some common interests here and we need to work together to solve those common interests, solve those common problems.

North Korea less of a threat

Christopher Hill
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State
There's especially room for multilateral diplomacy, working with other countries on a common issue. So I think this was a good example of that, but I don't want to say this works everywhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, today, if you're an ordinary American sitting at home watching this program, do you feel the United States is -- that North Korea is less of a threat to the United States today or what?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, look, North Korea has some 50 kilos of fissile material. Depending on their weapons design, if they're 10 kilos a weapon, that means you have five weapons. If there are five kilos, you have 10 weapons. In any event, you've got a problem. So that is a problem. But we didn't want that 50-kilo problem to become a 100-kilo problem or a 200-kilo problem. And the way to deal with that is to shut down the reactor.

So I think, from that point of view, yes, I think it has been beneficial if you're an American thinking about threats out there in the world. The fact that North Korea is no longer producing plutonium I think is important.

But another thing that I think is important for Americans is we need a way to deal with the Chinese, to work with the Chinese diplomatically on common issues, and this is one of them. And so I think that's also a good sign. So I do believe it's a good news story, but I hasten to add we've got a long way to go in this process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, a lot of comment about the fact that this was diplomacy unleashed, if you will. You were permitted by the administration to go over there, spent a lot of time talking to the North Koreans, talking to these other parties. What does this say, do you think, about the benefits of diplomacy versus whatever the alternative is?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, look, it's problem-solving. And you're looking at a tough problem there, and you're looking at the tools for which you can solve that tough problem. And sometimes you can't use the same tool for everything, but I think in this case there's some room for diplomacy. There's especially room for multilateral diplomacy, working with other countries on a common issue. So I think this was a good example of that, but I don't want to say this works everywhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don't want to say that?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I can't say that, because other situations are different. You know, that's the problem. You can't use the same tool on every problem you've got.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And still some tough work to be done here?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Christopher Hill, it's good to have you with us. Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you.