The Korean Peninsula: One of America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Challenges, with Christopher R. Hill

Dec 14, 2018

There are few, if any, who understand the Korean Peninsula situation better than Ambassador Hill. He served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and was head of the U.S. delegation to the 2005 six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. In this wise and witty talk he explains where we are today, how we got here, and where we're likely to go in the future.

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for beginning your day with us. I wish you all a very happy holiday. Thank you.

It is indeed a pleasure to welcome back to this podium one of our country's most admired and accomplished diplomats, Chris Hill. Following a long and distinguished career in the Foreign Service, Ambassador Hill is currently the chief advisor to the chancellor for global engagement and professor of the practice in diplomacy at the University of Denver. If you take a moment to read his bio, you'll note that Ambassador Hill has played a major role in some of the most consequential diplomatic episodes of our time. As a result, there are many areas of the world that he is familiar with and could discuss with equal expertise.

However, it is because of his years in Korea and his experience on the Korean Peninsula that we have chosen Korea for the focus of his presentation this morning. Having served as the U.S. ambassador to Seoul and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in 2005 Ambassador Hill was made head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. So, when Ambassador Hill says, "North Korea is one of America's greatest foreign policy challenges," we know that he has been there, tried that, and we better believe him.

Before we begin, I just want to take a moment to thank Krishen Mehta for suggesting we host Ambassador Hill and for his assistance in arranging his visit here this morning. Thank you, Krishen.

For several decades now, North Korea has been the poster child for rogue states. Through the years we've learned that as long as this nation pursues its nuclear weapons program—a program that includes not only assembling ballistic missiles but exporting them—North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, will continue to pose a threat to the United States, our allies, and our interests.

Through the years, both Republican and Democratic administrations have tried to engage with Pyongyang. Still, neither have succeeded in limiting North Korea's nuclear capability. And, even though the U.S.–North Korean summit this past June was unprecedented, and even though Trump insists that his diplomacy with North Korea has yielded results, as of now there has been no indication that North Korea is winding down its nuclear program. In fact, according to American experts, Pyongyang has continued its production of nuclear fuel and weapons and has steadily improved its missile capabilities. Progress on North Korean denuclearization has slowed to a crawl.

Perhaps the key question for the United States is to determine whether recent moves by the North to improve its relations with Seoul and Washington are merely tactical, designed only for short-term gain, or do they actually represent real strategic change in Pyongyang's policy?

For visionary insight, please join me in welcoming a person who can wrest from the past useful lessons for dealing with the present, our speaker today, Ambassador Chris Hill.

Thank you so much for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you very much, Joanne. I want to say it's a pleasure to be back here. I think I was last here about four years ago, and I think I was selling my book, which is about as shameless a business—any of you contemplating selling a book, you usually have to hold it up there and talk about discounts online. It's quite something. But, eventually, someone buys it, and now and again you'll run into someone at an airport who says, "I read your book." "Oh." And then, many books are purchased but very few are read.

I also want to thank Krishen, whom Julie and I have had the pleasure of knowing now for several years, because of Krishen's connection to the University of Denver and a graduate of the University of Denver. Krishen, you do so many good things, the least of which is to invite me to come here to New York. I really, really appreciate it. I appreciate your friendship through the years and your commitment, frankly, to a better world and all the things you have done.

I'm going to talk today about the heartrending story of North Korea, where we are today, how we got here, and where we're likely to go in the future. If I occasionally betray a certain skepticism about where we're going with this—well, we can talk about that. But I have some real concerns with not only the direction we're going but how we're doing things.

That subject includes how we're handling China because there are many of us who are very concerned about how China is handling us, many of us who are concerned about Xi Jinping's recent decision—really now a couple of years ago—to make himself essentially president for life. But I think we need to understand that this is a country that has some 1.4 billion people, it's not going away. It is, I think without question, our most important relationship, and it deserves a serious policy. If the policy is going to be to simply use it in our domestic politics and to make China the object of all bad things—that is, if someone loses a job to automation, it surely can't be automation, it must have been the Chinese.

And then, I think there is the issue of whether we are really, as the Chinese have suspected for many years, trying to hold them down, whether in fact we're going after their tech sector, not only because of their theft—and it is theft—of intellectual property, but also going after them because of their aspirations for it to be a high-tech country.

So we have to do some thinking about China. It's not easy, and it's certainly not easy given where they are going and the things that are happening in China. But I think at the end of the day we need to understand that working with them is indeed a challenge, but try working against them, and that seems to be the direction we're going.

Let me get back to where we are in Korea and how we got here and where we're going.

First of all, I think the president's decision about a year ago—if you all remember a year ago, we weren't just thinking about surviving our relatives over for Christmas, we were thinking about how to survive a nuclear war—there was a lot of this discussion. Some of it took on a sort of banality that was the subject for late-night comics, the issue of "our button is bigger than their button," and then alliterative phrases like "fire and fury," and things like that. But all of this added up to a situation that was difficult but that was being made worse by leadership not only in North Korea but also leadership in our country.

The South Koreans, who after all live—I mean, many of them can see North Korea from their window, to coin a phrase—were worried not only about North Korean behavior and North Korean bluster, but they became increasingly worried about U.S. behavior and U.S. bluster. So, we had a president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, try to sort of tamp this down and try to kind of put out feelers, not only to Washington but also to Pyongyang.

And then we had, on January 1 of this year, the at this point rather famous New Year's Day address of Kim Jong-un. Now, Kim Jong-un, and his predecessors, his father and his grandfather, had used these New Year's Day addresses, as many communist leaders do throughout the world, to say that "We're in a tough situation, but steel production is up and textile production is up, and we're going to be great again in the future."

I always remember in that regard when the first non-communist leader of Czechoslovakia at the time, Václav Havel, spoke. He said, "You are accustomed to hearing my predecessors tell you how steel production is up, etc., but I don't think you asked me to become your president after our Velvet Revolution to start lying to you," whereupon he laid out some truth.

Anyway, Kim Jong-un was moving along through a pretty familiar set of issues, and then he stunned everybody by suggesting that he wanted to see a successful Olympics for the South Koreans. At first when I saw that, I thought, Well, maybe he was saying, "Hey, those are nice Olympics—I wouldn't want anything to go wrong with those Olympics." But, in fact, he was kind of wishing the South Koreans well and suggesting a desire for a new relationship, very positive stuff, and it frankly hadn't been heard before.

Moon Jae-in, to his credit, moved with alacrity, to send a team up there and try to get a sense of what Kim Jong-un was talking about. And Moon Jae-in was also very smart in that he gave credit to our leader, to President Trump, for making this all possible. He said, "Were it not for your tough stance on North Korea, they would not have reached out."

Well, this gave rise to the view in the Trump administration that Through our tough action, we have brought them a to the negotiating table. As understandable as that is, the president, kind of, as is often the case, lacking a sort of rheostat, couldn't really modulate it or control it, and before you knew it, the president started marketing this opening to North Korea as something that was absolutely unprecedented and that he, the president, was all responsible for this.

Moon Jae-in was happy to give a lot of credit to the United States because Moon Jae-in had his own ideas of trying to improve relations with the North to get what's called a "peninsula process" going by which there are various confidence-building measures, taking down of some of the guard posts along the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), trying to reduce the number of minefields there, etc. So he gave a lot of credit to our president for this.

In the meantime, he sent a team to Washington, and the team reported to President Trump that "In fact the North Korean leader would like to meet you," whereupon the president—

Now, being a traditional diplomat, I usually like to see the following scenario: "Thank you very much for conveying that very important message. We are going to have a very careful look at this, we're going to take it very seriously, and we'll be back to you soon with an answer whether we could arrange such a meeting. But we do need to remind you that we have a lot of problems with North Korea, a lot of concerns, and we would want this meeting to be a very useful meeting that would really result in some progress." That's how traditional diplomats do things. But we don't live in an era of traditional diplomats, so instead our president said, "You bet, I'll be there." [Laughter]

This began a whole several-month period in which the only issue up for grabs was not "Are we going to make progress with them? Where do we stand with them? How are we going to ensure that we have clarity of purpose here?"—the only issue became a sort of cliffhanger issue, with "Where are we going to do this? Are we going to do it up in the DMZ? Will the president go to Pyongyang?" I don't think so. I never thought that, for a lot of reasons—and you don't have to be a Secret Service agent to be concerned about it—but a lot of reasons not to have our president go to Pyongyang.

They ended up with Singapore. Singapore, of course, has a large North Korean presence, a big American presence. I met with the North Koreans on a number of occasions in Singapore. They liked that place a lot. The trouble with Singapore is, for those of you who have been there, you essentially get on a plane, head to the moon and take a left, and you are in Singapore. It's a long way from here.

In the meantime—again a confession as a recovering diplomat—the first thing you try to do is you sit down with the other side and you say, "We're very pleased that our two leaders are going to meet. We have modestly taken our hand at trying to draft a joint communiqué. It's just a draft joint communiqué. It doesn't mean that we're expecting to announce this, but we want to work with you on something that would ensure that our two leaders have a successful meeting." That's how diplomats do things.

So it's pretty clear this was not done. So, as we got closer to Singapore, there was frankly really no idea of what the North Koreans were prepared to do. I can tell you, because some of my friends and former colleagues were asked to talk to the North Koreans and there were some meetings up in Pyongyang, that, as they suggested some joint communiqué language, the North Koreans said, "No, we're not interested. We don't sense that your president is either, and therefore we're just going to go and"—they didn't use the term "wing it," but that's exactly what they had in mind.

I mention all this because when you have a summit with two presidents and they have, really quite surprisingly and pleasantly pulled a rabbit out of a hat and you say "Oh my goodness, what progress! How did you do that?"—because you know rabbits don't live in hats. [Laughter] So when politicians pull rabbits out of the hat, it usually means that some diplomatic team spent weeks stuffing the rabbit down the hat—"Please stay in that hat until we have the meeting."

So the president goes to Singapore. In fact, Julie and I were in New York that night, and at 3:00 in the morning I was at an NBC studio. The president said, in a little walk he was taking in the garden with Kim Jong-un, that, "By the way, we're going to have an announcement soon." No one knew what the announcement was.

Again, what you try to do with these announcements is you give it out to the press, it's embargoed until the time at which the two presidents meet—and the press always observes that; I mean there have rarely been incidents where they announced it ahead of time—and the idea is so that when the two presidents meet and sign something, the people of the press already understand it and are ready to talk about it. So you really try to assure success even before they sit down. I mean they can talk about difficult teenagers, they can talk about bad hair days, they can talk about whatever they want, but it has already been agreed.

Instead, they signed something. And then—we live in an iPhone era—our president did that chainsaw signature and then held it up, and then somebody took an iPhone picture of it. So I'm sitting in New York, and—boom!—within about a minute, we get the actual text taken off an iPhone from a Japanese journalist who sent it to Kyoto News, who sent it to NBC, etc.

So I start reading through it, and a couple of things caught my mind. They did have the line about North Korea wanting to give up their nuclear weapons, but there was no concept of time; and, if anything, it was almost a sort of biblical notion that "We'll give up our nuclear weapons at the end of time, when the lion lies down with the lamb."

By the way, there's a place in Israel where you can see a lion lying down with a lamb. I remember asking the guys, "How do you make that work?" He said, "We put a new lamb in there every day." [Laughter]

This was clearly—you know, we weren't there yet in terms of time marker as to when this would happen.

Then, the second issue I noticed is you need a kind of follow-on process. The president, correctly, had on his side of the draft "I will dispatch the secretary of state"—again, I don't think you should start with the secretary of state. I think you ought to start with someone lower, but whatever, I'm not going to nitpick—so the president had in mind sending the secretary of state. By the way, he had already gone to Pyongyang a couple of times as a CIA director, and he was known to the North Koreans, so I understand that. But on the North Korean side, they just said "a player to be named later," so it was pretty clear the North Koreans had not done a lot of thinking about all this.

To fast-forward to the present, North Korea has not taken any moves toward denuclearization as we sit here this morning. North Korea has, instead, undertaken some sort of random acts. Now, random acts of kindness are a very nice thing. You know, there's nothing more pleasant than when someone gives up their taxi to you for no apparent reason. It's a random act of kindness.

But a random act of nuclearization doesn't quite work, because what you're trying to do is to get a list of their programs—and the North Koreans have politely and not-so-politely declined to give a list of their programs—but that's kind of your basic approach to this. The North Koreans say, "How can we do that? Because if we give you a list, you'll take it as a targeting list." I submit to you there are ways of giving a list of programs without it being a targeting list. You don't have to give the GPS coordinates of each of these facilities. So the North Koreans have failed to give anything in that regard.

Instead, they have said, "Well, we're going to destroy this engine testing facility." Now, engine testing facilities—one less engine testing facility in North Korea is probably a good day. But the problem is they have other engine testing facilities, and there might be a bunch of reasons why they give up a testing facility, because they're closing it and having others.

They agreed to end the Punggye-ri test site. Well, most people steeped in this stuff know that North Korea has tested some six nuclear weapons. The first was a fizzle, but the others have been successful. Most people agree that the Punggye-ri test site, if they did it once more, the dome would collapse and you'd have nuclear effluents in the air, so probably that wasn't going to suffice as a test facility in the future anyway. Again, good that they're destroying it and not going to use it again, but nothing we asked for and not something that's in the context of a denuclearization agreement. These kinds of random acts of denuclearization do not speak to a North Korean willingness to engage with us in a process that leads to denuclearization.

Now, on the other side, the Trump administration, as willing as they were to talk to the North Koreans, have also made very clear that, in the words of President Trump, "We're not going to repeat the mistakes of those diplomats in the past. We're not going to give sanctions relief until they've completely denuclearized." So the idea is: zero sanctions relief; in the meantime, North Korea gives up all their nuclear programs, nuclear weapons, etc.; and then we'll give them sanctions relief.

Well, a pretty tough line kind of stuff, but you know it's not going to work. Again, I think the fact of the matter is they take a step, we take a step—you know, because there's not a lot of trust in this business. The president has even said he loves Kim Jong-un, and—to quote Tina Turner, "What's love got to do with this?" [Laughter]—this is really about something else.

So we have a situation where they have engaged in some random acts of denuclearization, have indicated—or demanded really—that they get sanctions relief upfront, as opposed to on the back side of it. So what are we going to do?

I want to just go back for a second to mention one thing, because this is an issue that has come up a lot: the issue of why do they want nuclear weapons? Is it because they're afraid we're going to invade them tomorrow and, therefore, nuclear weapons act as a deterrent against a U.S. invasion? I would argue that that's not the issue, nor is it an issue that the North Koreans are going to threaten us at Christmas time or anytime.

The issue is more fundamental: that is, they want nuclear weapons not because of the threat of a U.S. invasion, because frankly we're not interested in invading North Korea. You can talk to any person who has ever done any planning on what you see in North Korea and no one wants to go into that country in an invasion way. So we're not interested in that.

So what is it? Do they think that these annual exercises, which they call "provocative war games"—and I think one of the noticeable things in Singapore was the fact that our president learned to speak a little North Korean when he stood up at a press conference and said, "And, by the way, we're going to cancel our provocative war games." [Laughter] Are they really worried that these joint exercises with the South Koreans are aimed at invading North Korea? Believe me, they know better, they know what a defensive exercise is from an offensive exercise, so I would argue that that's not really the issue for the North Koreans.

What they have in mind is the following. That is, the United States is present in South Korea with about 28,000 troops. The United States every year practices not only with those 28,000 troops but also brings additional troops in to man additional defensive perimeters, including troops from Texas; they bring in a whole supply chain that runs through Japan, which is why our troops in Japan are very essential to the overall issue of defending the Korean Peninsula.

So the North Koreans want to create a situation—it doesn't have to be with this administration, it doesn't have to be with the next administration, it doesn't even have to be with Sarah Palin's second administration [Laughter]—it can be anytime, but they want to create a situation where if the United States wants to participate in a little pushing and shoving on the Korean Peninsula along the side of the South Koreans, the North Koreans can say, "Americans, you watch out, because if you are going to be fighting with our troops, we will do, as you have done and as you are doing, we will be imperiling your civilians through intercontinental ballistic missile attacks on the United States."

Well, obviously, the answer to the North Koreans, if they're going to threaten our homeland—as they have, they have threatened our homeland—but the answer is: "Make my day. If you touch any hair on any of our citizens, we will turn your country into a parking lot."

To which the North Koreans reply: "Make our day"—they don't need parking lots since they don't have cars [Laughter]—but they would take the view that they are somehow prepared to survive a nuclear strike. Do they believe that? I doubt very many people believe it. Do they tunnel into the ground every day of the week? Do they have enormous facilities underground? Is their military revetted in underground positions? Yes, they are. So I don't think you can make the assumption that all of them understand, as I think all of us understand, that no one survives a nuclear war—I'm not sure you can make that assumption with North Korea.

They are essentially saying to the Americans: "You get involved in a scrap here, we will hold your civilians at risk," expecting that at some future point an American president—as I said, whatever American president—would say: "You know, the South Koreans can kind of handle this. We really don't need to be involved with this. The South Koreans have a very robust military force. We don't really need our troops there. Maybe there is some way that we can get our troops out."

With that in mind, with the issue of, in my view, the real North Korean effort of getting U.S. troops off the Korean Peninsula, the real question is: What are we going to do about it? Are we going to—as the president suggested, he would like to bring U.S. troops off the Korean Peninsula—and that was a very important thing he said in Singapore, when he said, "My preference is to withdraw our troops"—it was pretty clear that the president, who thinks of himself as the world's toughest leader, actually believes he can achieve denuclearization through the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

I submit to you it ain't gonna work, and I would also submit to you it's dangerous. If we are not on the Korean Peninsula, the question I think that would come up is, "Then what are we doing in Japan?" If you're Japanese, you would be asking yourself the question: "Do we want to be the only country in Asia with U.S. troops on our soil? When did they get here? That was 1945. Why were they here in 1945? They were occupying troops. But now they're not. It's just part of our U.S.–Japanese alliance." And then, many Japanese over the course of the decades might say, "Really? Do we really want American troops here?"

I think before long, historically—several decades maybe, although things move a lot faster these days—we would find that we don't have troops in Northeast Asia. Is that a good thing? I would argue to you that that would be a very bad thing.

As I mentioned earlier with respect to China, I think we are doomed to work with the Chinese. I think it is a relationship "too big to fail." I think we need to have a better rhythm and pattern of cooperation with China. But I don't think the way to do that is to pull our troops out of Asia, and I'd be very concerned about that.

So I think when the president clearly had that discussion with Kim Jung-un and our president was talking about "provocative war games," those are not provocative war games. Those are joint exercises designed to help defend South Korea.

I would also argue that, since I heard that many times from the North Koreans, the president needs to understand that some things did happen before he came along, and he might want to think about this, and why the North Koreans bring up these issues, and why we need to resist what the North Koreans have proposed.

I will say, fundamentally, for him to talk about U.S. troops in South Korea with the North Koreans is, to be polite about it, talking to the wrong Koreans, because that is a matter between the United States and South Korea.

As we go forward, we're seeing that North Korea has essentially demanded sanctions relief upfront. They're not asking for it step-by-step, they're asking for it upfront.

They have also kind of broken out of their diplomatic isolation. You recall the U.S. administrations for years have said, "If North Korea persists in this, we will keep them isolated." Well, that's over. New sanctions are not happening. A lot of what the success, to the extent we want this sort of solipsistic notion that "It's all because of us that the North Koreans have agreed to talk," we need to understand that, to the extent that's true, it's because we worked with the Chinese in New York on some sanctions that actually included some real things, like gasoline. That is not in the cards right now.

Meanwhile, as we get to the end of this year, the one big change in Northeast Asia is the fact that the Chinese and North Koreans now have mended their problems and, after seven years of not meeting, they've had three meetings this year, and I think there's a fourth coming up. So we have a situation where the results of this whole Singapore process, a really very-poorly-thought-through process, has been to bring China and North Korea together, and has done very little for our interests.

Now, the president has accurately said that North Korea has not tested since we began that process, and it's true. I submit to you, however, that when I talked to the North Koreans, which started in June 2005 and went on until December of 2008, they never tested a rocket, they never tested a nuclear weapon, except during a point at which our talks were interrupted for some 15 months during which they did test some missiles and did test their first nuclear device, which did not work. But my point being that this idea of not testing when you're talking is a time-honored thing and it actually happened before Donald Trump came along. So I don't think we have much to show for this process.

Where do we go from here? I think, first of all, we need to understand that this problem cannot just be solved by the United States. If we want to get in a war, sure, we can have the U.S.-North Korean War and we'll win. But I don't think that's anyone's objective. So I think we need to work with some partners in the region. As I said earlier, I know it's hard to work with China, but it's even harder to work against China. So let's see if we can have some serious effort with the Chinese. Our secretary of state has met with the Chinese once or twice, but no more. That is, we don't have a kind of daily dialogue with China.

To suggest that that could be done at the embassy level is really not to understand what embassies really do. You cannot have kind of strategic discussions with a country like China from an embassy in Beijing. This has to be a much bigger, higher level.

Unfortunately, the main issues that we are dealing with in China are issues that are quite understandable, I think, for any president to pursue, but we have to be careful that we are not doing it to the exclusion of others, and that's of course these trade issues. There's no question that China has abused intellectual property rights. There's no question that China has put enormous pressure on U.S. companies coming to China to hand over technology. Whatever the Chinese reasons for this—whether it has to do with the 19th century when people came and received whole concessions, and the Chinese authorities today cannot allow that, therefore they have to demand technology transfer as a kind of compensation for coming on their markets—I understand the historical antecedents. But we cannot have a country that claims to be a member in good standing of the World Trade Organization (WTO) essentially blackmailing companies into turning over technology. It's a real problem.

I think it's also a real problem that they're running a trade surplus with us, a bilateral trade surplus that is probably in the $350 billion range. While economists say this has nothing to do with reality, a bilateral trade surplus is a bilateral trade surplus, I submit to you it is a problem because China has become a symbol of all our economic dislocation, understandably. Some 80 percent of job loss is caused by automation. You cannot convince a worker in Detroit that this is all because of robots. That worker believes this is all because of China.

So I understand these issues. These issues are very serious. But in pursuing these issues we have created a situation where we have not carved out room to talk about areas where we do need patterns of cooperation, and that's in some of these tough situations in North Korea. We need to find ways to work with China, ways to agree to disagree on trade issues, to work assiduously on that, but not to leave other issues alone.

And certainly, we need to hold the Chinese accountable for what they have said many times, which is they do not accept, they do not agree, that North Korea should have nuclear weapons. We need to hold them to that and we need to work with them every day. China, if you look at a map, they're right next to North Korea, and they don't accept the proposition that they should simply get after-action reports on how our negotiations have gone with North Korea. I worked very closely with the Chinese, and it's pretty clear that when the Chinese look at their future, they look to us more than they look to North Korea. We need to get back to that situation.

I think, too, even as difficult as these trade issues are, we need to be careful that this doesn't sound like a sort of repeat from the previous end-of-century of a sort of "Yellow Peril." We need to be a little careful in how we talk about the Chinese because it's getting a little out of hand right now, the attitudes to China in this country.

I think part of any president's writ is to explain why it was that Obama pursued relations with China, why it was that George W. Bush, that Bill Clinton, that George Herbert Walker Bush, that Reagan, that Ford—why all these presidents felt it was necessary to work with China. This president needs to explain that continuum and explain the reasons why 1.4 billion people will not be ignored.

I think in going forward we don't have a lot to show for this bilateral process with North Korea. We need to multilateralize it. We need to create a situation with the South Koreans where their peninsula talks are going very far and they are untethered by these nuclear talks. Ideally, an American administration needs to be very careful not to be in a position of holding the South Koreans back, because then you fall into the trap where there are many South Koreans—they seem like an extreme wing—who believe that they are apart, they are divided from their cousins in the North, from their families in the North, they are divided because of the United States, because of "big power" politics that came to the Korean Peninsula and tore them apart from their cousins. For us to be in a position of holding them back is not a good position because it feeds the narrative that somehow we are responsible and want to continue to keep the Korean people apart.

But we now have a situation where they are moving forward with the North Koreans untethered by any issues of nuclear concerns and, frankly, security concerns. So we need to have a better rhythm with the South Koreans. Now, we are doing a little of that with the South Koreans, but we can't have a situation where we talk to the North Koreans, they talk to the North Koreans, and then we compare stories and it's as if we talked to different people, different North Koreans. So we need again to close in together and figure out how we can go forward.

Finally, I think it's important to understand that Japan is a crucial ally of ours, a great friend of ours, and a country that has had difficulties with its past—that is, difficulties understanding its past and accounting for its past—and the consequence has been that they are going to be continued tensions between countries like China and South Korea and Japan. The way to deal with that is to be present in all of them and, in effect, be trying to improve the relations in the region, and we can do that best if we are active in the region. I am very concerned about the direction we're going, where we have worked only on North Korea, only on the relationship with North Korea, and have not tended to take care of these other relationships, and in not taking care of those other relationships I think we have put our situation with North Korea into a worse position than before.

With those kind of uplifting breakfast thoughts, maybe we can go to a more interactive dialogue. Thank you.


QUESTION: I'm Helena Finn, former U.S. diplomat, but did not serve in Asia.

Having spent a lot of time in Germany, I'd like you to elaborate if you would on sentiment in North and South Korea about possible reunification.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Yes. I'm not sure what the sentiment is in North Korea. I was there three times—our talks with the North Koreans were in Beijing, which we had about 38 or 40 talks—but in North Korea itself I went three times, including a trip out to the Yongbyon nuclear facility. In fact, they wanted me to go out there the first time, but since it was still producing spent fuel and plutonium, I just declined the honor of watching the North Koreans merrily making nuclear weapons. I told them, "I'll come out when they stop that."

They did stop it and I went out. It was kind of interesting because the various minders, the various people who were with us, took a wrong turn, the wrong dirt road, and we were going through all these villages, which was interesting, and then our motorcade of about five or so vintage Mercedes stopped, and then there was a big fight between the security guys. I thought I'd get out and mediate—"Let him get his word in here"—and we ended up reversing and going back.

In short, I must say I did not get the sense that the North Korean people were thinking about this. I'm not sure they would even know if they were told to think about it, because I'm not sure they really know about South Korea.

I think one of the problems is China opened up because people could look out there beyond China and then realized there is much to be built and much success to be had in China. I think the problem with North Korea would be the problem of some of the Eastern European countries way back when—you know, they'd send a symphony orchestra west and it would come back as a string quartet, this kind of thing. [Laughter] I'm not sure the North Koreans are prepared for that, and I think that's part of the problem in terms of talking about long-term relationships.

One thing we know from 1989 and all that was that once you start something and you think you've got it under control, it's not under control, it moves very fast, and I think the North Koreans are smart enough to know that.

With respect to South Korea, I think if you had asked that question a couple of years ago, the answer would be: "Look, the South Koreans have enough problems in their daily life—good problems, things are happening in a very positive way—and the last thing they want is to bring North Koreans under their care." The South Koreans have not always been terrific about refugees from North Korea. It hasn't always been a pretty picture. So I think if you had asked that question two years ago, most South Koreans would say, "I'm not sure we want that to happen."

I think there's a bit of a change in the dynamic caused by Moon Jae-in and his desire to have a normal relationship with North Korea, and I think the South Koreans also understand that it's hard to keep that normal relationship in a situation where you have a totally abnormal division across the Korean Peninsula and a totally abnormal division between families.

South Korean attitudes on this can be rather fickle and they can be rather generationally determined, where younger people say "No, thank you," and they consider North Koreans as foreign as can be, while the older generation says, "Well, my cousin is still there."

All that said, I think the game has changed somewhat under Moon Jae-in and there's a lot more talk about it in that sense.

QUESTION: Mark Duncan from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.

I ask this because last week was actually the 17th United Nations‑Republic of Korea Joint Conference on Disarmament and Non‑proliferation Issues. Given the distrust between the parties in the Korean Peninsula dispute, what role do you perceive, for example, for the UN in terms of facilitating confidence- and security-building measures, and specifically would you consider a nuclear weapons-free zone for the whole of the peninsula to be a solution that would satisfy both the North's demands for security assurances and the United States' demands for denuclearization?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: If you recall, in the September 19, 2005 statement, the U.S. reaffirmed that there are no nuclear weapons in South Korea. If the North Koreans wanted some type of—and we talked about this at the time—verification regime to look through military facilities, we talked about it, and we thought we could probably do it provided we get reciprocity on North Korean military facilities, which we doubted we would get.

I think if the issue is to ensure there are no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea were prepared on that basis, which is what they said they would do back in September 2005, I think we would certainly be prepared to do that.

You know, even the term "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," which was a kind of buzz term—I think the Chinese actually used it first—upset some people in the Trump administration: "Why are we making assurances on this?" It also ignited a view on the other side to say that "Somehow that means that North Korea has a different concept of denuclearization than we do." That argument went on for months, and I still don't understand it.

The fact of the matter is that we have no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and if there are means that they need to verify that, we can certainly explore those, provided it's on a reciprocal basis.

Finally, as for the United Nations, there is no question in my view that if we got to an agreement and things are going forward, this could not be done between the United States and North Korea, this has to be done with multilateral institutions, including the United Nations. I could imagine a role for the United Nations in terms of some of its Member States through a UN mandate being involved in taking fissile material out or monitoring the absence of fissile material. I think the United Nations would, frankly, in the context of an agreement have to play a very big role.

For Americans who complain about the United Nations every day of the week, they need to remember one thing: We created that thing and we created it for good reasons. We know that there are things where we need to deal with them bilaterally or nationally, and then for the rest of the things it has been very helpful to our country to have the United Nations taking the lead on things. I think in this country we need to stop this UN-bashing and start understanding that we created this thing and for good reason.

QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.

You alluded to pushing and shoving on the Korean Peninsula as a reason why they want nuclear weapons. The first question is, what exactly would that pushing and shoving look like?

The second question is this: Let's say down the road at some point where it's clear they have a nuclear capability and you're stuck advising the U.S. president, what happens if they say: "We never ended that war. We intend to unify the Korean Peninsula. We don't have any quarrel with you. You get your guys out of there—there is going to be a war there—and if you don't, we are going use the weapons against the mainland," and maybe they fire one 50 miles off the coast just for laughs. How does a U.S. president react in that kind of circumstance?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: That is precisely what I'm concerned about. By "pushing and shoving" I meant of course much more. If North Korea were to invade South Korea again, the question would be—we are duly treaty-bound to consider it an attack on us. So if they step into South Korea, it's as if they've stepped into the United States from a treaty perspective, and so we would have to be there.

And then, if the North Koreans said, "You Americans, if you so much as load a rifle here, we will attack you," I think that's where the difficulty comes in. I mean if I were the American president, I'd like to think that they'll never do that because we'll turn them into a parking lot, but I cannot say that the chances of their attacking us is zero percent. I just can't say that.

The concern I have is, sooner or later, an American president would rationalize her or his way out of this by saying, "You know, the South Koreans have a very capable force, extremely capable"—and they are very capable, one of the best in the world—"they can handle this. They don't need us." And that's the end of the alliance, and I would argue that's the end of alliances all over the world. So I have a big concern about that.

Then, finally, you might ask, "Well, why would the North Koreans think about attacking South Korea? The South Koreans do have one of the greatest militaries in the world and the North Koreans don't." That's all true. There are plenty of examples in warfare from the beginning of time of the inferior force armed with a superior will prevailing in a war. So I would not assume that the North Koreans would reach the rational conclusion that the South Korean military is bigger than theirs and therefore they ought to leave it alone. I wouldn't assume that.

The North Koreans regularly exaggerate the degree to which there is North Korean sympathy in South Korea. They regularly exaggerate that. They clearly believe there is a substantial percentage of South Koreans who would come to their assistance.

By the way, it's not just the North Koreans who have come to that faulty conclusion. We did the same thing in Iraq. We thought we'd go into Iraq and millions of Iraqis would join us against Saddam Hussein. We did the same thing in Cuba, 90 miles away, thinking that when we launched a force in Cuba many Cubans would join with us. So if the North Koreans thought that, they wouldn't be the first.

So I think there's a lot of reasons to be concerned about this and a lot of reasons to keep Americans at the ready and at the side of the South Koreans.

QUESTION: Hi, Ron Berenbeim.

You mentioned China—more than mentioned it—as being a key element in this whole equation even with respect to the two Koreas, and you also mentioned intellectual property infringement. There exists a potential mechanism for resolving these kinds of matters and working out ways of handling and policing, or whatever you want to call it.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Trade and economic issues, absolutely.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Berenbeim]: And it's the [Trans-Pacific Partnership]. Trump doesn't like that, for reasons best known to himself alone. But he does go on and complain about how this is going on. So how do we handle this sort of stuff?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, again I think the best way to handle economic issues is multilaterally, as you suggest, with the Pacific approach that everyone agreed to, except that both presidential candidates, Trump and Clinton, pulled back from.

But, you know, China is also in the WTO, and they wanted to be in the WTO to be declared a normal country, a normal economy, a market economy specifically, and so we should be holding them to those standards.

And by the way, the problems we have with intellectual property rights and other issues are the same problems the Europeans have. Well, we're not in a really good position right now to work closely with the Europeans on China, but we should get ourselves into that position. Again, without engaging in some Trump derangement syndrome, because I don't want to turn this into a discussion about President Trump, we need to pick our battles a little better, and I would not start with Canada. [Laughter]

I think we need to find ways to work with like-minded countries and to put some real pressure to bear on the Chinese. I think, even before talking about the Pacific Partnership, we could be talking about international organizations that we and the Chinese and the Europeans are already a part of, and I'd start with the WTO.

China's not the first country to steal intellectual property rights, but they are the first country to steal intellectual property rights with an enormous military capable of exerting force throughout the region. The Japanese kind of did this stuff to us in the 1980s, but no one really thought about the Japanese as some kind of global competitor. The South Koreans did this kind of stuff way back when, whether it was copies of industrial things, but we never thought—and correctly—of an ally like South Korea being a military competitor. So this is the first real military competitor that has also been an economic competitor.

By the way, the difference with the Soviets is they were never an economic competitor, they were just a military competitor. With China you've got both, and this really, I think, speaks to the need of not going through "Yellow Peril," as they talked about in the late 19th century, but rather speaks to the need to address seriously problems that we have with the Chinese together with like-minded countries at our side.

The United States and China are doomed to work together, and we need to stop the nonsense that somehow we can sort of marginalize China. China will not be marginalized. So I think we just have to get a little more serious about them.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

High on the list of the near-term agenda of the North Korean government is a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. The South Korean government seems to be strongly in favor of that, our government against it. Could you outline why?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: It's funny, because we talked about the peace treaty when we were doing the negotiations in 2005, and then we encouraged the Chinese, who were the drafters of the agreement that we all agreed to in September 2005, that if you look at the text of it, it refers to "directly relevant countries shall immediately begin the negotiation of a peace treaty."

By the way, the reason we didn't name the countries is that the original armistice was the United States, China, and North Korea. South Korea was not there. So when we talked to the North Koreans about this in 2005, they said, "Sure, we would like a peace treaty. We would like to take the armistice and make it a peace treaty between China, you (the Americans), and us."

I said, "Oh, but we have the South Koreans here."

"Oh, but they weren't there."

I said, "We're not going to do anything without the South Koreans."

The Chinese, being good drafters of these things, said, "Okay, we'll just say 'directly affected countries.'" Just to give you a little background on that.

Now, of course, the North Koreans are talking about the South Koreans almost to the exclusion of the Chinese. It's kind of interesting.

So what are they doing with this? Again, without sounding like a cynic, I think what they're trying to do is sort of create the predicate—to say that, "We've got a peace treaty; why do you have troops here? A peace treaty is peace. You don't need troops here"—and to try to increase the pressure whether among President Trump's constituents or elsewhere, or among South Koreans, to say, "Americans are not needed because there's a peace treaty." I think there's a lot going on there.

I think the president did try to suggest that he had agreed with our argument that we need a peace treaty, but I think in agreeing with the argument that we need to turn the armistice into a peace treaty, he was also kind of buying the line that they need a peace treaty because of our threatening behavior to them, rather than, as I suggested earlier, their desire to get us off the Korean Peninsula. So I don't think we are threatening them.

In fact, back in 2005—by the way, anyone who has ever done a peace treaty or anyone who has ever done a diplomatic agreement that has been superseded by others is always coming back to his own diplomatic agreement, so forgive me for that. [Laughter]

But I think we made it very clear in that agreement that we have no intention of invading or attacking North Korea. We put that explicitly. If the North Koreans wanted better wording, we could have done better wording.

We even got Dick Cheney to sign off on that—who, by the way, is brilliantly portrayed in a new movie called Vice. I usually don't advertise movies, but I can't wait to see that one. So even Cheney agreed to it. Even John Bolton agreed to that.

So I think we should do more, but I think it needs to be in the context of denuclearization, and I think the problem is the North Koreans want it before denuclearization, and it suggests to us that they are never going to get around to denuclearization.

JOANNE MYERS: This has been absolutely wonderful. I know we could go on and on and on, but I know you've been up very, very early. I thank you so much. With humor and intelligence, you really gave us a sense of what's happening around the Korean Peninsula. Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you very much, Joanne. Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: I want to wish you all a very happy holiday and we'll see you next year, same time, same place.

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