Hope, Experience and North Korea

The seemingly impossible work of Christopher Hill


There are some jobs you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Joke writer for Vladimir Putin, say, or literary agent for O.J. Simpson. But it would be hard to find a more onerous assignment than the one inflicted on Christopher Hill: chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea.

For the last two years, Hill has been asked to do what many people consider the equivalent of alchemy, trying to turn one of the world's least cooperative and most belligerent regimes into a partner in stopping nuclear proliferation.

His official title is Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, but as he puts it, "I'm turning out to be the Assistant Secretary for North Korea." The career diplomat speaks a variety of obscure languages, including Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian, but probably none harder to decipher than the bizarre mix of signals that emanates regularly from Pyongyang.

He has cracked the code sufficiently, though, to persuade the North Koreans to sign an agreement that, if implemented, would have unprecedented results. "There are no examples of countries that conduct nuclear tests then pulling back," he said in a Tuesday interview with me and other editorial writers at the State Department.

The deal reached in February would require the North Koreans to pull way, way back—accepting international inspectors, decommissioning a nuclear reactor and giving up all the weapons and weapons fuel they have produced. "The Number One principle is the denuclearization of North Korea," he says.

The accord evokes skepticism because it suggests we are paying for a horse we have already bought. Back in 1994, the Clinton administration got North Korea to promise to give up its nuclear program in exchange for fuel supplies, a light-water reactor that would not yield weapons material, and eventual normalization of relations. In 2002, though, the Bush administration unveiled evidence that the Pyongyang regime had undertaken a secret program to enrich uranium, in defiance of its commitments. (For the record, we didn't keep all of ours, either.)

In due course, the whole agreement disintegrated, as Kim Jong Il evicted international inspectors, began reprocessing nuclear fuel, withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, last October, carried out his country's first nuclear test. To suggest that now he is ready to behave brings to mind Samuel Johnson's comment about a man's remarriage: "a triumph of hope over experience."

But second marriages often turn out happy, and Hill sees a reasonable chance that this latest agreement will work as well. "We're not playing 'trust me,'" he says. The deal is structured in such a way that the North Koreans get very little until they have taken concrete steps to fulfill their obligations, such as shutting down their nuclear facilities. That has to be done by mid-April, so if they renege, we'll know very soon. At that point, we'll be out no more than 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, just 5 percent of the total we and our allies agreed to supply.

It's hard to be optimistic that the North Koreans will reverse course, but Hill thinks some important things have changed. The Beijing government told Kim not to detonate a bomb and warned him there would be consequences if he did.

There were. First, said Hill, the Chinese responded "by supporting a very tough resolution calling on all UN member states to ban certain types of trade with North Korea." Second, the nuclear test failed to force the United States to capitulate, as he may have hoped. Sometimes, says Hill, "when you make a threat to do something, it works better than if you actually do it."

After the test, Kim found his chief enemy and his chief ally arrayed firmly against him, putting him in a far more vulnerable position than before. The key point missed by critics of the accord, in his view, is that failure is assured without China's cooperation and success is possible—not certain, but possible—with it. And this time, unlike the last, Beijing has a stake in bringing about nuclear disarmament. "China is the best guarantee that North Korea won't welsh on the deal," he says.

But no one knows better than the assistant secretary of state that nobody ever lost money betting on North Korean duplicity. Hill, a phlegmatic sort who seems immune to flights of fancy, exhibits no illusions. What gives him confidence this agreement will work? "Confidence," he replies, "is too strong a word."