With South Korean President Moon Ja-in due to have his first summit talks U.S. President Donald Trump on June 30, all eyes are on whether the two leaders can agree on a common approach on North Korea’s nuclear problems. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, former chief U.S. negotiator at the 6-Party Talks from 2005-2009, on this and other thorny North Korean nuclear issues. Hill currently serves as dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver since retiring in 2010 after a diplomatic career that included U.S, ambassador to South Korea and Iraq, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs.
RFA: South Korean President Moon Jae-in is vising here for his first summit talks with President Trump this week. According to media reports, President Moon prefers a two-step solution to North Korea’s nuclear problem, namely start with a nuclear freeze and then move to complete dismantlement. What is your take?
Hill: Well, I think before you dismantle, you have to freeze. But I’m a little concerned that too often these freezes are linked to freezing of US-ROK military exercises, so-called freeze for freeze. I think we need to be careful not to allow North Korea to pursue a freeze in the US-ROK military ties because that freeze is really aimed at making the US-ROK military alliance a paper alliance. As for having a freeze, I have always felt that if it’s going to dismantle a nuclear facility, you need to turn it off first. I understand that. But I don’t agree with the idea that freeze should be a goal, or that freeze should somehow be a reciprocal effort to retard the strength of the US-ROK military defense of the peninsula. I don’t accept the North Korean position, and no one should, that these exercises are somehow aggressive exercises aimed at preparing for North Korean attack. Every single exercise I’ve ever seen starts with the presumption of North Korean attack against South Korea. So, I think we need to be careful not to unwittingly follow North Korean propaganda.
RFA: Are you opposed to North Korea’s nuclear freeze as an interim step to denuclearization?
Hill: No, that’s not what I said. I said quite the opposite. I said, if you have a freeze, it needs to be an intermediate step, but you have to spell out precisely what the final step is, namely denuclearization. And ideally you should have a timetable of denuclearization, that is, freeze has to be within the context of denuclearization. And if you just say, ‘We want a freeze, somehow we want to improve the atmosphere, make everyone feel better and then eventually we come back maybe to something else.’ That is not enough because we end up with freeze as a goal. So, freeze is a means, not a goal.
RFA: So, do you mean ‘freeze’ in the context of denuclearization as the goal?
Hill: Yea. I mean that’s what we did before. Shut down the thing before you dismantle or disable it. So, I understand that. If you just have a freeze to somehow ‘improve the atmosphere,’ I don’t think it’s a good decision. I think an even worse decision is to have a freeze in return for a freeze of the US-ROK alliance, because to not have a military exercise is to reduce the alliance to a paper alliance.
RFA: Actually you had a freeze deal back in September 2005, when the 6-Party Talks participants announced a joint statement, right?
Hill: Yes. I think the North Koreans should accept that it is a wonderful solution and reaffirm that commitment.
RFA: It seems South Korea and the U.S. have different approaches to North Korea at the moment. For example, the new South Korean government is willing to engage with the North if Pyongyang stops its nuclear and missile activities, while the Trump administration wants a firm commitment by the North to denuclearization as the condition for dialogue. With the first Moon-Trump summit around the corner, do you see any possible friction between the two allies on this?
Hill: I think the United States and South Korea have always had some differences about how to move forward with North Korea. I think those differences are understandable, given where South Korea is, and given the feelings of the Korean people. I’d be surprised if you could have an identical position between the United States and South Korea, given the different geography and history. That said, I think it’s important that if South Korea wants to pursue some kind of peninsula dialogue, I think it’s important that they consult with the United States on this. But it’s not really for America to tell Koreans they cannot have a peninsula dialogue. However, when the subject comes to nuclear weapons, that is, 6-Party talks, I think there is where the United States and South Korea need to continue to be very close in terms of harmonizing our approach. So, I’ll draw a distinction between peninsula talks, which are efforts of the Korean people to talk about family reunions and other issues, and nuclear talks, which are more in the framework of international security. So, I think, with respect to the nuclear talks, there will be a good discussion about that (at the upcoming Korea-U.S. summit talks), and with respect to the peninsula talks, I think it will be valuable to listen to South Koreans say what they have in mind. So, I don’t look for any big problems here, provided that people in the U.S. understand that South Korea pursues peninsula talks with different goals in mind than when the nuclear talks are pursued.
RFA: You just mentioned ‘peninsula talks’. Do you think the peninsula talks can include the issue of resumption of Kaesung Industrial Complex, shut down since Feb. 2016?
Hill: Well, I think that has to be a discussion between the two allies. Between the two allies, the U.S. and South Korea, one rule should always prevail, that is, no surprises. But I think it is important for Americans not to be telling South Koreans how they deal with cousins in the North with respect to unifying the families and issues like that. But it’s also important for our ally South Korea to keep the United States as its main ally. I think it’s important for the U.S. to avoid trying to keep the Korean people apart. How can Kaesung fit into all this? What can be done? Well, my own view was that Kaesung was a valuable element of any North-South Korean process.
RFA: As you know, the Trump administration is pursuing a ‘maximum pressure and engagement’ approach on North Korea. Given the tense relationship between the two countries, don’t you think chances for a meaningful dialogue is dim?
Hill: I don’t see the purpose of engagement until North Korea shows some interest in engaging on the basis of what we want to engage on, which is denuclearization. They agreed to denuclearize, and they decided to completely abrogate their agreement because of their dispute over verification, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to allow them to talk on the basis of nothing having happened in the past. For North Koreans to repudiate everything they have agreed to is, frankly, a waste of time for everybody. With respect to the issue of dialogue with North Korea, which of course deals with their nuclear weapons, North Koreas has shown no interest in returning to the dialogue on the basis of doing away with their nuclear weapons. Therefore one has to ask the question, ‘What is the purpose of dialogue if not to deal with the issue of nuclear weapons?’ So far, North Koreans have provided no reason to the United States and anyone for returning to the talks. They seem to be interested in talking to us only on the basis of their being a nuclear power, and that’s not a precondition for the United States. So now, I don’t see a way forward, and I think it’s important for the U.S. to be in close contact with China to examine issues with China to look at hypothetical issues about how both countries would respond to a future crisis on the Korean peninsula. But I think it’s also very critical that the U.S. maintains a close relationship with South Korea, and I think that will be helped by President Moon Jae-in’s upcoming visit to Washington.
RFA: President Trump said in his tweet on June 20 that China did not succeeded in getting the North to curb its nuclear and missile programs. With China’s help failing like that, do you believe it’s time for the U.S. to press maximum pressure on North Korea rather than engagement?
Hill: I like to think that the U.S. should always be prepared to engage on the right terms, and the right terms have to be North Korea’s willingness to follow up its previous agreements. So, I’d never take engagement off the table, but I think we also need to understand that North Korea’s nuclear programs are a threat not only to ROK and Japan, but they are also to the United States. And maximum pressure also should be any part of policy toward North Korea. So far, they showed themselves to be completely uninterested in some kind of return to the denuclearization talks. Therefore I think we need to show a greater interest in protecting ourselves. The problem, of course, is the options are not so good. Military options are not good, diplomatic options are not good. So, we need to continue to put our heads together with our allies in the region, but also our 6-party partner, which is China, to see if we can find something. I think the U.S.-China relationship is far more important than China’s relationship with North Korea. I think most Chinese would agree with that. So, it’s really time we tried to work together on this.
RFA: As a longtime North Korea watcher and the former chief U.S. negotiator at the 6-Party Talks, what do you think is the best possible approach to the complicated North Korean nuclear problem?
Hill: I think we all need to be united in dealing with it. I think we need to work with China. I know it’s difficult. I know they have different ways of looking at it, but China need to be part of it. I think we need to fully implement UN sanctions, and I think we need to be utterly aggressive and strong in how we approach North Korea and understand that if they keep just a few nuclear weapons, that can be very destabilizing. So, we must continue with a zero option of no nuclear weapon on the Korean peninsula. That absolutely must be the goal, and there can be no retreat from that goal because just a few nuclear weapons can be enormous problems.