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Hill offers insights into North Korea

In September 2010, State Department veteran Christopher Hill assumed the dean’s post at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. During his 30-plus years of foreign service, Hill has routinely been at the frontlines of history, negotiating with the North Koreans, promoting peace in the Balkans and most recently, serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

In early January, Hill sat down with DU Today to discuss his remarkable career and offer his insights on recent events in the international arena. A video of that discussion, along with the transcript, will run in three installments.

This is the final installment.  

DU Today: Let’s talk about North Korea. By the way, I just read this morning that columnist Dave Barry described North Korea as the international equivalent of Charlie Sheen. And the State Department considers it “the black hole of Asia” because reliable information about the place is so hard to come by. You’ve been there, as recently as 2007?
I was there in 2008 actually.

DU Today: Tell us why you were there.
Well, I was there on three occasions. What I did was try to nail down some interim deals. Essentially, what we were trying to do was give them some of this heavy fuel oil, this very thick-viscosity oil they use in some of their heating plants and some of their industrial facilities in exchange for shutting down their plutonium reactor and eventually disabling it. How did they disable it? They took the cooling tower, without which you cannot operate a plutonium plant, and they put explosives in it, and they blew it up. They blew up the cooling tower — that took place in the summer of ’08, and that means they have not operated a plutonium plant.

Now that is a partial success because they also have some plutonium, extracted in the past, which is enough to make several bombs, and they’ve not given that back. Part of the deal of their agreeing to denuclearize is that they’d have to give back the plutonium, and they haven’t done so.

The other problem is that we’ve long suspected, and now North Korea has admitted, that they have some facilities designed to make enriched uranium — the kind of program Iran is engaged in. How far the North Koreans have gotten on it? Hard to say, but it certainly poses still another challenge.

Dealing with this country is not easy. They are a law unto themselves. When people talk about American exceptionalism, they ought to take a look at North Korean exceptionalism. They simply don’t play by any rules that anyone else plays by. To describe them as kind of a black hole is really about right. Because there are very few people who go there. It’s about as opaque a country as you will ever find. It’s hard to figure out what’s really going on. There seem to be regional tensions between various Koreans there, but they’re all Koreans, so you can’t even look at ethnic tensions as a means to understand the place. It’s very difficult to get a handle on it.

What we know about it, though, is that when we look at a map of northeast Asia, you will see some of the most dynamic countries in the world, bar none. You look at China — extraordinary. You look at South Korea, you look at Japan. Even the Russian Maritime Provinces have come along big time in recent years, due to energy developments in eastern Russia, Asia-Russia.

Then you see this little funny thing, which is often depicted on maps as literally black and a hole, and that’s North Korea. It’s right smack dab in the middle of this very dynamic region, and yet it’s clearly a kind of museum piece. A country needs a purpose, a country needs a reason to exist, and when you look at South Korea — the homeland for the Korean people, one of the most dynamic countries in the world — it’s pretty obvious why South Korea exists. The same with China or Japan. When you look at North Korea, you have to ask yourself, “What is the point of this place?”

When you start looking into it, you see that it’s a relic of history, as the two Germanys were a relic of history, the Koreas were a relic of history. And then you look at what are they trying to do, what are they trying to accomplish there? It seems to be some version of communism, whose purpose now no one can really understand, including the North Koreans. It’s a legacy of a very brutal century.  What happened in Asia during World War II, the Korean War and the Chinese revolutionary war or civil war that took place in the late 1940s — these were some of the most brutal moments in world history, and out of them emerged this relic. And so what to do about it?

Now North Korea has put together a kind of cult of a political system, which depended on a guy called Kim Il Sung, whose son, Kim Jong Il, has been Kim Jong Very Ill in the last couple of years. And now Kim Jong Il is trying to turn power over to his rather prosaic-looking son, a guy named Kim Jong Un. There’s a real question whether this succession is going to work.

So in addition to the fact that you have this very isolated country that doesn’t know how to behave well with others, you have a full-blown succession problem, which could turn into a full-blown succession crisis. So whether North Korea is going to be around with us for much longer, it’s hard to say. But they’re a tough people, they tend to take orders a lot more than they should, so don’t count them out. After all, German communism is gone. Polish communism is gone. Russian communism is gone. Vietnamese and Chinese communism — going. But Koreans, they’re pretty tough, and it’s still there. 

DU Today: Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson recently went to North Korea as an unofficial envoy of the United States, and upon his return, he called the situation “the worst I have ever seen on the peninsula.” And North Korea announced that it is “fully prepared to launch a sacred war.” Do you think this situation offers any opportunities for the United States?
Well, the North Koreans tend to say rather belligerent things. They say those things for a number of reasons. Whether they believe them or not is probably not up there among the reasons for saying them. So I wouldn’t get too concerned about some of the rhetoric.

I think the concern really is some of their actions, where they’ve torpedoed a South Korean ship a few months ago, killing 40-something sailors, where they’ve actually ranged in with their artillery on a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, or East Sea as it’s known in Korea. These are signs that the North Koreans are acting in a way that is a little reckless. So what is going on? This is what a lot of people are trying to figure out. And it seems that the North Korean military, which is a bit of a law unto itself, is making decisions on their own. Which is not to say that North Korean civilian leadership is a whole lot better, but the North Korean military has simply no clue how their actions are being perceived outside. I think what we’re seeing is a weakening of political leadership, of civilian leadership in North Korea, and I think it does bear watching.

Now, whether the governor of New Mexico is the one to fix this whole problem, or whether the governor of the great state of New Mexico is the one to draw attention to it, are hard to say. What I can assure you though is that the current behavior of North Korea is a major concern with President Obama and Secretary [Hillary] Clinton.

I think there is one other factor that is really working in our favor. In the past we were often out of sync with our South Korean partners. This was true in the late 1990s, and it was true early on when many South Koreans felt that the U.S. had not engaged in serious negotiations in trying to resolve the nuclear problem peacefully. I’m very pleased that that perception is no longer there, and we have about as good a relationship with South Korea as we have ever had — and probably the best relationship we’ve ever had with a democratic South Korea. I’m encouraged by our ability to work closely with the South Koreans, and I’m also encouraged by the fact that South Korean-Japan relations are better than ever, better than they’ve been for a long time.

I think a key question as we go forward will not be so much South Korea’s relations with North Korea or our relations with North Korea or New Mexico’s relations with North Korea, but will rather be the question of how South Korea and the U.S. are dealing with China, because the Chinese need to step up and acknowledge some responsibility for this historical relic. 

DU Today: What do you think they’re doing behind the scenes?
Oh, I think the Chinese are probably trying to encourage the North Koreans to calm down a little, but I think the Chinese take the view that they don’t have much influence. I think they’re being unduly modest in this regard, and I think Chinese diplomacy needs to really show they can do something with a country so close to China.

You know, when you look at the North Korean nuclear issue, it’s not only a challenge to South Korea, because after all South Korea, Japan, any of those countries could go nuclear if they wanted to. It’s not only a challenge to them, it’s also a challenge to the international nuclear system. Almost by happenstance, the only country in East Asia that has nuclear weapons is China. If North Korea is allowed to be No. 2, well, it won’t be No. 2 for long, because other countries will say, “If China and North Korea have nuclear weapons, we, too, will need nuclear weapons.” This is a real concern; it’s especially a concern when you look at some of the North Korean rhetoric, talk about nuclear war and the Korean peninsula. This is clearly a threat, and so I think China should understand that this is not only a threat to the peace and security of the Korean peninsula but it’s also a threat to their status as the only nuclear state in East Asia.    

DU Today: One last question: Of all the places you’ve invested your time and energies, which one beckons you back?
Which one beckons me back? Besides the lacrosse field, I guess? Well, hard to say. You know, I have a special thing for the Balkans, because my dad was a diplomat, so I first arrived in Belgrade when I was 6 years old. I first heard war stories when I was that age from Yugoslav friends. I have a special sense that if we can get the Balkans right, Europe will be whole, free and at peace. And if we get Europe right, and if the U.S. can engage with Europe, then I think we can do a lot of things in the world. So of all those countries, I guess the ones that beckon me back are in the Balkans.

But I hasten to add that some of the greatest moments of my life were in Poland, seeing Poland emerge from this terrible fate that history had dealt it. I’m reading a book now called Bloodlands about the area between Stalin and Hitler, written by a Yale historian named [Timothy] Snyder. The area between Stalin and Hitler is actually Poland. I feel a great sense of accomplishment on behalf of our country that we helped make Poland free.

And, of course, Korea, etc. I don’t regret any of these countries and look forward to getting back to all of them.

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One Comment

  1. Richard W. Murphy (no relation to Ambassador Richard W. Murphy) says:

    Ambassador Hill’s observations are perceptive and enlightening. As a young second lieutenant in the US Army Counter Intelligence Corps (I was on active duty from 1954 to 1956, I served in the Republic of Korea for almost a year in 1955 and 1956. Although the North Korean regime was constantly sending a stream of saboteurs and espionage agents into South Korea — a sign of unremitting hostility — I never dreamt at the time that now, almost 58 years after the cease fire ending the Korean War went into effect, the war continues because there has been no peace treaty between the combatants. Consequently, the Korean peninsula remains one of the most dangerous places on earth as the North Korean regime stubbornly clings to power. I hope and pray that somehow, the two Koreans can become one under a government that is at peace with its own people and responsive to their aspirations and needs. I salute Ambassador Hill. He deserves the gratitude of his compatriots for his dedicated service as a diplomat.

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