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Ambassador Christopher Hill Talks Contentious US-N. Korea Relations

Dec 12, 2017

Tensions between the United States and North Korea grow with every development with the Asian country's nuclear weapons program and with every tweet and response between U.S. President Donald Trump and his counterpart, Kim Jong Un. 

One man who has sat across the table from North Korea's leaders is Christopher Hill, who was U.S. ambassador to a number of countries, including South Korea (2004-05) and Iraq (2009-10). He also was the head of the U.S. delegation to the 2005-07 six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. 

Hill recently came to the University of South Florida for a discussion titled "United States and North Korea - Are they Moving Toward a War?" The public event was hosted by the USF Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies

Before his speech, Hill spoke to WUSF News' University Beat. Here are some of the highlights:

Despite the bluster on both sides, Hill doesn't think a war between the U.S. and North Korea is inevitable.  
"I would not feel the need to build a bomb shelter right now. ...I think it does speak to the great need right now for diplomacy, not so much with North Korea, but diplomacy with China, with our two allies in the region - South Korea and Japan - and overall, I think an approach that leaves no misunderstanding about how we regard a nuclear North Korea."

Credit USF Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies

Speaking of our allies, Hill wonders if North Korean leaders think Americans will eventually view South Korea and Japan as an "acceptable target" as long as the United States is not a nuclear target.
"I think the problem is a longer-term problem and I think it's a very deliberate North Korean effort, almost diabolical in its approach, essentially to disconnect or decouple the U.S. from Northeast Asia, and I think that is the concern everyone should have, and even if U.S. administrations, this (Trump) administration or the next administration, don't feel that they will ever be decoupled, who knows what could happen in the future?"

"I think it's important that South Korea and Japan see us there in the long run, and don't see us in any way cutting and running. For that reason, I think President Trump has been wise not to repeat some of his comments made during the campaign that somehow they should take care of their own defense. This is not just about Northeast Asia, this is about our alliances and our relationships all over the world." 

From his experience during the previous six-party talks with North Korea, Hill says diplomacy can work. However, he wonders if leaders on both sides will give it a chance.
"Today, North Korea under this third generation of the Kim family has made very clear they are not interested in negotiations aimed at denuclearization. Ten years ago, I never thought there could be anyone worse than Kim Jong Il, I just didn't anticipate his son, Kim Jong Un." 

"This type of extremely radical and belligerent strategy is what we have to be very concerned about, and the fact that he's using nuclear weapons to try to get us to be less of an ally in South Korea, I think is a very worrisome thing."

Hill thinks, if diplomacy is to work, China will play a major role in that effort. The question is do American leaders want to pursue that track.
"President Xi Jinping has been very clear about his view that North Korea should not be developing nuclear weapons, and in fact, he has refrained from inviting Kim Jong Un or in anyway expressing the view that he's a great ally."

"I think we need to see how is China's view emerging. I think it's very important for us to be sitting down and having lengthy discussions with the Chinese of the kind Henry Kissinger did in anticipation of President Nixon's (1972) visit to China. President Nixon didn't just pull a rabbit out of a hat - somebody put that rabbit in the hat - and that was Kissinger."

"When I think of a diplomatic process, I think of the way forward with China...but I also think about the need for some diplomats, and this is where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has had some trouble coming to an understanding that you can't have diplomacy without diplomats."