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U.S. Explores Delicate Options in Korean Response

November 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Tensions between the Koreas remain high after Tuesday's artillery barrage killed four South Koreans. Jim Lehrer examines the U.S. role and options with Christopher Hill, who helped lead the U.S. delegation that negotiated with North Koreans in recent years, and Leon Sigal, who has written extensively about U.S.-Korean relations.

JIM LEHRER: We have two views now of what’s going on now from Christopher Hill, who led the U.S. team negotiating with the North Koreans from 2005 to 2008.He’s now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.And from Leon Sigal, who has written extensively about U.S./Korean relations.He’s with the Social Science Research Council, an independent think tank in New York City.

Ambassador Hill, does the joint U.S./South Korean naval exercise make sense to you?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, former assistant secretary of state:Yes, it does, because I think the key element of any U.S. policy toward North Korea has to be the relationship with South Korea.

You know, this relationship is getting better and better.South Korea has emerged as not only a major partner for us regionally, but even globally, as we have seen in the G20 meeting.

So, I think it’s very important that we stay in tight formation with the South Koreans.And I think an exercise of this kind is entirely appropriate.

JIM LEHRER: Leon Sigal, do you agree it sends the message — a message, and it’s the right message?

LEON SIGAL, Korea analyst:I think the first thing you do is, you reassure your ally.

But we also have to think about how we play our way through this, so we can find a way out.And that’s also important for bringing the South Koreans along.We need to find a path to get us out of the pernicious interaction between the South and North.

JIM LEHRER: Well, how is North Korea likely to see this naval exercise, Mr. Sigal?

LEON SIGAL:Well, I think they will, as usual, denounce it as, in their terms, provocative.

But I don’t — unless we get too close to North Korean shores, I don’t think they will respond in any military way.But I think, again, we have to see our way through this.We have to look out ahead and ask ourselves, where do we want to be three months from now?

And my own view is, we have to be back at the negotiating table, in — in two different ways.We have to be negotiating about their nuclear programs, but we also need a peace process in the Korean Peninsula.And, for that — for both of those things, South Korea is critically important.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Ambassador, that there’s got to be larger — larger view here in the horizon, or this doesn’t — does not make sense?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I agree that we need a peace process.

Our problem right now is, we don’t have an interlocutor.It’s very unclear what’s going on in North Korea.Clearly, they have a succession crisis.They have an army that’s basically a law unto itself, that’s probably not taking civilian direction at this point.So, I think we have problems finding someone over there to talk to.

And, in the meantime, I think it is very important that we work very closely with the South Koreans.I don’t think we want to be in a position of somehow egging them on, nor do we want to be seen as — as pulling them back.I think what we want to be doing is in very, very serious consultations.And I think President Obama is doing just that with President Lee Myung-Bak.

JIM LEHRER: You mean egging on the South Koreans?Is that what you — or the North Koreans?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: That is correct.That is correct.


CHRISTOPHER HILL: No, I’m referring to the South Koreans, because there are two ways you can go wrong with the South Koreans.One is to stand thousands of miles away and suggest there needs to be a much firmer response than they’re making.And the second is to somehow, you know, advocate that they do less.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.Do you agree with Mr. Sigal that the only danger here, potential danger, immediate danger, is that the North Korea — if the South Korean exercise with the U.S. gets too close to South Korea — I mean, to North Korea, they could react, and this thing could have another tit for tat?Is that possible?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I agree.Yes, I agree.I think one has to be careful in these exercises.You don’t want them to be needlessly provocative.

But, at the same time, the North Koreans are pretty used to us having exercises.And I think the worst thing we could do is not have an exercise and suggest that we’re somehow intimidated by what has really become a pattern of even more outrageous behavior on the part of the North Koreans.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Sigal, now, let’s go back to your — your suggestion about a peace process.What do you have in mind?

LEON SIGAL:Well, look, as Ambassador Hill fully knows, the six-party process produced a document back in September of 2005.

And one of the points in that document was that the relevant parties, obviously, the United States, South Korea, and North Korea, but maybe China as well, would begin a — to establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

Look, until North Korea is reassured — remember, the key target of everything we’re doing here has to be North Korea.They — they’re the ones who need persuading.And it may not work.But we have to provide enough reassurance down the road — not right now, but down the road to them — that we are prepared to reduce what they see as the threat from us.

It’s only under those circumstances that they would conceivably stop their — some of their nuclear programs, begin to roll them back.Don’t know if it would work, but a peace process is a critical element of that.And that was recognized in the September 2005 joint statement.

JIM LEHRER: Do you buy that, Mr. Ambassador?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, at this point, I’m not sure if a wheelbarrow full of reassurance is really going to help the situation.

I think the North Koreans really have sort of acted out and acted on their own.I think what we need do as a first step is work with the South Koreans and, as a second step, get to the Chinese.And I think that is a very important element of the equation.

JIM LEHRER: So, you agree with Admiral Mullen, what Admiral Mullen said today, that the Chinese really do have the ability to influence North Korea in a major way?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I really think the North Koreans sort of live and breathe on only one relationship out there, and that is with China.

And I think that to — the degree to which we reach out with the North Koreans right now really gets the Chinese off the hook.They say, OK, that’s what you should have done in the first place.Talk to the North Koreans.We will try to help you talk to the North Koreans, but we’re not going to take responsibility for the action of this small neighbor of ours.

And, after all, North Korea is pretty much a Chinese creation.Secondly, I would be concerned about any effort by the U.S. to reach out to the North Koreans, in terms of what it would do to the South Koreans.I believe the key relationship on the Korean Peninsula is not North Korea.It’s South Korea.

And that’s why I keep coming back to the need, not just to reassure them, but to work closely with them, and make sure this alliance that’s gone on for some over 50 years is one that will last another 50 years.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Leon Sigal, you see it differently?

LEON SIGAL: Yes, I do. I don’t think China can — whether they would or not, I don’t think they can bail us out. The key relationship North Korea is seeking is a better relationship with us, South Korea, and Japan. They don’t want to be totally dependent on China. That remains the case, I think, today.

And I think we have to test — not right now, but after we work our way through the immediate situation, we have to test whether they actually do want a better relationship, not just with us, but with South Korea and Japan.

I agree with Ambassador Hill that it’s critical that South Korea come along.This cannot work unless the South Koreans are willing to play.But I think some South Koreans, even on the conservative side in Seoul, are beginning to recognize that the policy of pressure has been met with counterpressure by the North, and that disengagement doesn’t play well in Pyongyang.

Whether engagement will play any better, we have to test and see, because, in the past, it actually has worked.You know, people forget, for 13 years, the North Koreans weren’t making any plutonium.There were years when there weren’t confrontations, North/South confrontations.

This is where we have to get back to, and I don’t know any other way, except try to negotiate.See what you can get.

JIM LEHRER: And we have to get back to this whole subject another time.Thank you both very much tonight.