Jun 11, 2018 07:52 PM

U.S.-North Korea Solution Must Involve China: Former U.S. Negotiator

Christopher Hill, the then-U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, attends the fourth round of Six-Party Talks in Beijing in July 2005. Photo: VCG
Christopher Hill, the then-U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, attends the fourth round of Six-Party Talks in Beijing in July 2005. Photo: VCG

* Former chief negotiator for Six-Party Talks advises Trump administration to get everything in writing and “don’t start talking about things that put a burden on the process”

* Hill hopes that withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea isn’t part of any bargain, calling the troops “an element of stability in the region”

(Beijing) — A meeting in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set for Tuesday morning local time will make history, potentially ending one of the last remaining chapters of the Cold War. Those talks could see an agreement to conclude the 68-year-old Korean War, but implementation of any such deal will be equally important, said Christopher Hill, former chief negotiator for the Six-Party Talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Those talks, which began in 2003, brought together North and South Korea, China, the U.S., Russia and Japan in pursuit of a deal to end the North’s nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic recognition. Those talks produced a deal, but that ultimately collapsed, and the North went on to develop a nuclear bomb.

“It’s like a soccer match for players to keep the momentum before they score. The summit should also be followed with further negotiations to move the denuclearization process ahead,” Hill, who was the U.S. ambassador to South Korea under then-President George W. Bush, told Caixin in a recent interview in Beijing.

Now a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hill also offered pointed advice to the Trump administration over how to deal with the North Korean negotiators: Get everything in writing, and don’t let them talk in circles. “Go for the nuclear weapons and don’t start talking about things that just put a burden on the process,” he said. “And my other advice is, work with China, and this is not going to succeed if China is against it.”

He also reflected on the Six-Party Talks and why they have failed, as well as his take on geopolitics in the region.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

Caixin: You were the head of the U.S. delegation to the Six-Party Talks during the George W. Bush administration. So we know that you have a lot of experience in dealing with the North Koreans. From your experience, what could be the difficulties in dealing with North Korean negotiators?

Hill: Well, the problem is sometimes they would agree to something and then not agree to it. So instead of moving in a line, you would sometimes move in a circle, which is not a good feeling for a negotiator.

They’re very tough. But I don’t mean that as a compliment. They’re very just kind of hardheaded. And they think of themselves as victims, which they’re not. People who call themselves victims are always more difficult to deal with. And they try to suggest that their actions are only defensive, which they’re not. Their actions can be very offensive. It’s hard to get to know them because they have kind of narrow instructions.

We’ve heard that during one of your negotiations, North Korea would even use China for leverage, to urge the U.S. to accept their terms. Or they claimed that if the U.S. let the negotiations collapse, they may be marginalized by the so-called pro-China faction in North Korea. Is that true?

(The negotiator) tried to talk about how they’re hard-liners, and he’s a soft-liner, but they’re just North Koreans. But it was interesting. They always wanted to show they were independent from China. Frankly, I won’t say of him personally, but I think sometimes the North Koreans were a little disrespectful to China and resentful that you would suggest to them that China had actually helped in any way in the past.

They wanted to deal with America directly, they said. They considered South Korea some kind of puppet state. They considered China some kind of hegemonic state. So they wanted to deal with us. But I must tell you, I did not believe that it was very sincere.

We tried to include a peace-treaty idea. For example, China had the very interesting suggestion that we try to open up some kind of relations with North Korea, of the kind that were developed with China in the 1970s, the so-called interest sections. That is, not full embassies, but interest sections. So this was an idea from the Chinese, because it worked for China-U.S.; why shouldn’t it work for (North Korea)-U.S.?

I took it back to Washington. I had a lot of difficulty getting it through some difficult people. … Finally, I succeeded. I was very pleased, very proud of myself. I came back to see the North Koreans; in this case, it was not in Beijing, but rather in Berlin. I said, “Good news, Mr. Kim. I am hereby able to offer you the exchange of interest sections. We would have one in Pyongyang; you would have one in Washington.” And I thought he would say thank you or something. He said, “We don’t want that, we only want full relations.” (Editor’s note: “Mr. Kim” is then-North Korean Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Kim Kye Gwan, since promoted to first vice minister.)

In past negotiations, it seems that North Korea often agreed to something and then they did not. Was that the case?

They would sometimes say, “We need to take a break.” I’d say, “Fine.” They come back and say they have new instructions. I said, “I can’t operate like that. I can’t work on something and then you go away and come back in one hour and forty-five minutes and tell me you have new instructions.” That’s not a basis to have a negotiation.

So you think that it’s because North Korea wasn’t sincere that the talks actually failed?

Well, I don’t know. They failed — the Six-Party Talks failed because North Korea would not give us a verification regime. They wanted us to trust them. They would allow us to verify some complex that we already knew about, like Yongbyon. But if we worried about something somewhere else, we weren’t allowed. So that was the problem because (in) a verification regime, there are certain international standards of verification.

And the North Koreans would always say, “Oh, those aren’t international standards, those are your standards,” and they would accuse us of some kind of imperialistic control of all the standards. Whether it was in Vienna, or you know, the (International Atomic Energy Agency) in Vienna. They’d always accuse us of kind of masterminding these things, a bit of a clumsy view of the world. The world is more complicated than “America controls everything.”

Now that China has shown its intention to engage in the future peacemaking process, and after observing Xi Jinping’s desire to play a more-balanced role in dealing with the North and the South, the Chinese government tends to urge the South Koreans to believe that China could be a reliable and impartial partner. What might your expectation be for China’s role if a peacemaking mechanism can be built?

I would expect and would welcome a bigger relationship between China and South Korea. Someday, I don’t know when, but I suspect that someday, maybe not in our lifetime, the Korean people would be united on the Korean Peninsula. And I would expect there to be good relations in the region, including with China. So, it’s been difficult. China, I think, is constrained by this historic relationship with North Korea, which I don’t think has been a good thing for China. But it’s been a historic thing and it’s not easy to change.

And by “not being a good thing,” I mean it in the following way. China has problems, we all have problems. China has maritime disputes with Southeast Asia. Look, we (Americans) even have some maritime disputes with Canada. So maritime disputes do happen.

But I think from the standpoint of China’s international reputation, having a special relationship with a country like North Korea is a problem for China. I understand how it happened. It’s historical. History is a set of facts, and facts are stubborn things. But I think it’s hurt China’s international reputation. And … I think it’s been good for China to kind of say: “North Korea, you’re our neighbor, fine, we understand. But no more special relationship with you.”

I think that’s the right approach to China, for China to take. But I think in the future, you know, when there’s a consolidated Korea, and I think there will be someday, it’ll be good for China to have a good neighborly relationship with South Korea.

Have you observed any significant changes in China’s strategy if you compare the current situation and 2005?

Well in 2005, China was leading the whole process. Those drafts — that September 2005 statement — was drafted by the Chinese. There were people, who as I told you, said now we shouldn’t be doing the six-party thing — “What’s Japan doing there? What’s China doing there? What’s Russia doing there? We should just be talking to the North Koreans.” I don’t think that’s a recipe for success. I think this is an issue that engages a number of countries in the region, most notably China. So I was a very strong believer in the need for China, and I worked closely with the Chinese delegation.

Do you have any comments on the Trump administration’s preparations for this upcoming summit?

It’s hard to say. He has a great deal of confidence in his instincts. He thinks he’s good at understanding people. I hope he is, because I think this is a very important summit. I would feel better if I saw more preparation. (U.S. Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo did go to North Korea twice. Ambassador Kim, who was my deputy, is also engaged. So, there are some signs that there’s some preparation. But we have to see what happens next week. But I worry whether there’s been enough preparation. (Editor’s note: “Ambassador Kim” is Sung Kim, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and the current ambassador to the Philippines.)

So it’s very different from past negotiations, because in the past, it was always an initial set of working-level negotiations that would lead to a summit. But now we have a summit first, then we go to the working-level negotiations. Do you think this will be a problem?

Yes. I think it is upside down. I think there needs to be, I hope in the future when Pompeo is there for a while — he’s a smart guy — Harvard Law School, you know. He’s a smart guy. I hope that he can have a more-normal approach. But right now, it’s not normal.

So what do you think is the best outcome out of this Singapore summit?

I hope North Korea will reaffirm its desire to get rid of its nuclear weapons. I hope North Korea will indicate that it’s prepared to get rid of those nuclear weapons in a reasonable amount of time. That is, it should not take the rest of human history to do it. I hope that there will be some aspect of looking at some of the other problems in North Korea, including the chemical warfare and biological warfare and maybe the missiles as well. And so, I hope that out of this, there will be a commitment to follow these issues and the commitment to have another meeting. I also hope it’s not a summit meeting. I hope that’s more of a working meeting.

What terms do you think this administration is likely to offer North Korea?

Well, I think we need to offer assistance. We need to offer a consortium of countries that would be prepared to have assistance. I will tell you one thing I don’t want us to offer, and that is the idea that we should withdraw our troops from South Korea, or something like that. I think our troops in South Korea have been an element of stability in the region. And I know North Korea doesn’t like having U.S. troops in South Korea, but I think it’s useful to have them there. So I hope there’s no change in the security status.

We are not interested in attacking or invading North Korea. We said so in the September 2005 statement. We could say so again. We have no plans to attack or invade North Korea. And for them to suggest that we do is a suggestion against the evidence. Because we don’t want to do that. And we won’t do that.

So what we could do for North Korea is to offer a normal relationship but not make changes in our relationship with South Korea in order to make North Korea happy. That’s our relationship with South Korea. That’s not North Korea’s business. And our troops are not there to attack North Korea. They’re there to defend South Korea, and as such I think they’re a stabilizing factor.

So do you think the issue of a peace treaty, or the end of the Korean War, will be a topic in the summit?

Yes, and it was in 2005 as well. And if you look at the joint statement, it said that the directly related parties shall negotiate a peace treaty. I hope something similar to that is there. Who was directly related? China has to be part of it, U.S. has to be to be part of it, North Korea has to be part of it, and in my view, it’s essential to have South Korea part of it.

But in 2005, because South Korea did not sign the armistice in 1953, the North Koreans said, “Oh we don’t need those puppets.” But they do need to be there. So it should be four parties doing a peace treaty. I think the U.S. is very much in favor of that, and I think we can make progress. We should try to have a normal relationship with North Korea, but we can have a normal relationship with them provided they give up their nuclear weapons.

According to our standard knowledge, there are three or maybe four major issues between China and the U.S.: the South China Sea, Taiwan, the “nine-dash line” and the trade war. Do you think that the Trump administration in this summit will perceive China as manipulating the negotiations to bargain, or even to make a swap on the trade war or the Taiwan issue?

I don’t think so. If I’m China, I want to see the North Korean nuclear issue finished. I don’t think it’s been good for China. So if I’m China, I want to do that. For China to keep it going as a bargaining chip, I don’t think so. Nuclear weapons are not a good thing to have in your neighborhood. Look, if they test another weapon, and they have a collapse in the ground, do you really want people in Northeast China to be suffering from radiation sickness? You really want that? I don’t think so.

Will the Trump administration package all the issues together? Do they have this inclination?

I think China needs to be, whether on (June) 12th or starting on the 13th, China needs to be in its proper place at the table. There will be no solution to North Korea without China’s participation — that’s a fact. People may say, “Oh we can ignore China.” No, we can’t. I hope we can re-establish closer relations with China.

Contact reporter Li Rongde (

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