MARGARET WARNER: Just back from two weeks of negotiations in Beijing over ending North Korea's nuclear program is Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. He was U.S. point man in the six-nation talks, and also held numerous private sessions with his North Korean counterpart.
It's the first time the Bush administration has engaged in such intense bilateral talks with Pyongyang. But the negotiations were suspended for three weeks on Saturday with no agreement. Ambassador Hill joins us now.
And welcome, Mr. Ambassador. I should explain I call you Ambassador Hill because you've been ambassador to several countries as well.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Whichever.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, your North Korean counterpart, as Jim reported earlier, actually had some -- despite the deadlock -- had some positive things to say about these talks today. And one of the things he said was that they had established a groundwork for future discussions. Is that your view?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, we went through a lot of issues. As you know, they stayed out of the talks for some 13 months. So we had 13 days to go over a number of issues. And I'd say we covered some of the main issues: What they need to do in terms of getting rid of their weapons, their nuclear programs, and what we can do as to the form of compensation, including energy and economic assistance.
MARGARET WARNER: So what did - I mean, the South Korean foreign minister said today he thought the U.S. and North Korea had narrowed their differences. Do you agree with that?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, you know, it's hard to say because nothing is agreed unless everything is agreed. So indeed, there were moments when it looked like we really had, and there were some other moments where it looked like we hadn't. So we'll know when we get an agreement, then we can look back and see how well we did.
MARGARET WARNER: What did North Korea bring to the table or offer that they hadn't before?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, it's pretty clear that they are prepared to do away with these weapon systems and it's pretty clear they're willing to do away with the systems related to the weapons systems. So that was encouraging. But, you know, to be sure we still have some differences with them.
MARGARET WARNER: Did the U.S., -- The report suggested the U.S. also indicated some flexibility on this so-called sequencing issue: who does what, when, when does the U.S. reciprocate if North Korea does some of the things they're saying. Was the U.S. able to go part way to meet North Korea's concerns on that?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, to be sure, we're looking at how we can sort of speed up the time lines, how we can get them to denuclearize as soon as possible. So we had some discussion, but I must say we don't have any final agreement on sequencing. That will probably come at the next stage. This stage was simply to look at principles, and then the next stage would be to see how you put those principles together in an agreement.
MARGARET WARNER: But you were convinced that the North Koreans are really ready to give all this up?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, again, I'll know better when we have an agreement, certainly, this is a thirteen-day negotiation, the first five days a lot of discussion, the next five days looking at texts. In those five days when we're looking at text there were some encouraging signs. The last couple of days it turned the other way. And so we'll have to see. What is encouraging is that they've agreed to come back on the week of Aug. 29.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So now let's talk about the deadlock. The talks stalemated over what?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, essentially toward the end it was very clear that North Korea wants to maintain a civilian nuclear energy program. And in addition to that, they also want to have some light water reactors built for them. These are reactors that are a little more difficult to make bombs out of, but by no means impossible to make bombs out of. And, in fact, these were reactors that were talked about in the 1990s and another agreement at the time.
MARGARET WARNER: And the U.S. Is unwilling to accept this, why?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I don't want you to bi-lateralize this, because none of the other participants at the talks were willing to give the North Koreans light water reactors. The South Koreans who had been willing to do that now are talking about providing conventional power. And no one else is really talking about providing light water reactors, so this was North Korea against the others.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, I accept that the others agree with the U.S. on this. But again explain why, explain particularly, and the president was asked this today, why is the U.S., which also faces something of an impasse with Iran, willing to accept that Iran could have peaceful civilian nuclear power, but not North Korea?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I think have you to remember how we got here. I mean, the North Koreans had a research reactor in a place in a place called Yongbyong; it was a graphite-moderated reactor, and what happened was one day they withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, they withdrew from the safeguards that accompanied that, they kicked out the inspectors and within two months, just two months, they had turned this so-called research reactor into a bomb making machine. So obviously -- and proud of it, by the way. So obviously we do have some concerns about letting them go back to research reactors or other things.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you essentially saying because the world cannot trust the North Korea to keep its word if it had any nuclear capability at all?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, that's a pretty direct statement, and in my line of work, let me just point out we have some remaining differences on this issue, to be sure.
MARGARET WARNER: But now if the two alternatives, and you probably won't accept that these are the two alternatives, but let me posit them anyway.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: There are at least two, I'm sure.
MARGARET WARNER: If one alternative is that North Korea gives up all its weapons, all its weapons grade programs, everything, and wants a civilian reactor with very intrusive inspections, or it continues to, it says build bombs and do everything else outside the NPT, are you saying there's no give in the U.S. position on the civilian reactor side?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, one issue is when we talk about getting rid of only military programs or weapons programs, then you'll get into the question of whether, you know, some program and some place is weapons-related or not, and you'll start getting into an argument of whether it's related or not. So we'd like a clean slate. And I must say the other partners in this process agree to that.
And, in fact, the draft, the Chinese draft on the subject of, which was a draft to try to create the whole agreement, made very clear that North Korea needs to get out of the nuclear business, then get back into the NPT.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, you've broken for three weeks; they've said they'll come back; the U.S. is obviously coming back, and the other parties. What difference do you think three weeks will make, if what you're trying to do is get North Korea to move?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I must say two weeks was a long enough period for me in Beijing, so three weeks would be a lot longer, but, you know, it's an opportunity for the North Korean negotiators to go back to Pyongyang to discuss this with actually their leader, with Mr. Kim Jong-Il, but also the rest of their government. They need to look at what's on the table, and in fact what's on the table is a pretty good set of things for North Korea.
This is a country that really needs some help, really needs some help in terms of its economy. And I can assure you making weapons is not part of that.
MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, are you counting on the Chinese to help bring them around? What else --
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I think we all agree, in fact I had a lot of good conversations with the Chinese, we all agreed that this is time for North Korea to settle and get out of this business. So certainly we hope the Chinese can do something. The Chinese have a very strong relationship with North Korea, a very strong economic relationship, political relationship. In fact, there are a lot personal relationships that go between China and North Korea. So we do look to China. But I think we all have a responsibility to do everything we can do to get an agreement.
MARGARET WARNER: Late today you were quoted on the wires as having told reporters that you were willing to meet with the North Koreans again privately before the talks. Have the North Koreans indicated an interest in that; is that in the works?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, actually, we haven't had any discussions on that. I just got back from Beijing and I'm still bleary-eyed today. But the first thing I want to do is work with our allies, Japan and South Korea, to make sure we have a really common position. We need to discuss where to go next, and as for meeting with the North Koreans, we don't have any plans to do that right now.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell us now about the meetings, and both the big ones and the bilateral ones. What was it like negotiating with them?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, first of all, I heard they would be very bombastic, that there would be tempers; I didn't see any of that. It was pretty business-like, pretty calm and businesslike, and a lot of the times we spend just reviewing each other's position.
You know, we hadn't met in a while; it's been 13 months since there were any six-party discussions, so it was a real opportunity to go over where our differences are.
MARGARET WARNER: What was different about the private talks versus the big group talks? I mean, where did you meet; was the atmosphere more informal?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, with the North Koreans we tended to meet with their entire delegation; usually they didn't like to break into a smaller group than that. With the other delegations we would often have one-on-ones, whereas with the North it was pretty large. They tended to be rather formal, with interpreters and the works, so it wasn't a lot of sort of side bar give and take there.
MARGARET WARNER: So what do you think you learned in the private talks that you otherwise wouldn't have known or understood?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, certainly in dealing with them directly as we did, I found it very useful to deal directly. Rather than deal with their lawyer, you're dealing with them directly and you kind of understand their insights. And you get a little better sense of what's really important to them. Now, I have to be careful of that because we could come back in three weeks and I could find that, you know, they absolutely positively have to have some element that I didn't anticipate this time around. But I feel I had a little sense of what's important to them. And from that I draw a little optimism because I think we can work something out if I'm right about that.
MARGARET WARNER: So where are you on the scale of very optimistic to very pessimistic?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Oh, I don't want to say that in a game that I'm playing in right now, I don't want to make a bet on that. But we have to see. We have to see. I mean, it was encouraging that they agreed to this date, that is Aug. 29. We had all six parties sit down and we all discussed that. They agreed to come back; that's encouraging. But as to whether they're, you know, whether they're really dragging themselves over the line and agreeing to do all that, we have to see.
MARGARET WARNER: And how long is the United States interested in, willing to continue these talks, versus when the U.S. would say this is going nowhere; we're going to try to take this to the Security Council?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I mean, President Bush has made very clear on many occasions that we consider the six-party talks the best way to solve this. I mean, this is not a bilateral issue with the U.S. Every country there needs to be involved. So we think it's the best, and as long as we're making progress, I would say we made some progress in Beijing, we'll stick with it.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're not saying that the next round, the Aug. 29 round is make or break?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: I don't like to use terms like that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ambassador Hill, thank you very much.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you.