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July 26, 2005

A Breakthrough with North Korea?
Posted by Derek Chollet

For a long time, critics of the Bush Administration’s policy toward North Korea have argued that the U.S. should be prepared to sit down face-to-face with the North Koreans to bring an end to their nuclear ambitions—some even quoted the old JFK line about the Soviets, that we should never to negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.

Well, we wanted a more direct approach, and that’s what we finally got.  It took awhile—it has been 13 months since the U.S. formally met with the North Koreans in the “6-party” format (where the two sides are joined by China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan)—but yesterday in Beijing, Chris Hill, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, met alone with his North Korean counterpart.  Chris Hill is one of America's best and most experienced diplomats, full stop.  He is smart, tenacious, and no stranger to tough negotiations with difficult characters. He cut his teeth a decade ago in the talks that ended the war in Bosnia--when working under Richard Holbrooke, he crossed swords with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, among other thugs (including, at one point, Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic).  He was Ambassador to Macedonia during the 1999 Kosovo war, where he served as the Clinton Administration's point person in dealing with the Kosovar Albanians.

This experience has earned him trust among the Bush Administration hardliners to deal with the North Koreans.  He's not an "Asia hand"--proudly so--having only served there briefly (he was most recently ambassador to South Korea), and has ruffled some feathers in that relatively insular Foreign Service world by bringing in some fellow non-Asia hands to fill senior positions in his State Department bureau.  He is one of Rice's most trusted aides and well-liked by President Bush -- who got to know him when he served as ambassador to one of Bush's favorite countries, Poland.

Hill has told the press that he is in Beijing to get results--and that he might stay there for weeks if he needs to.  "We do not have the option of walking away from this problem," he said when the talks opened this morning.  This is a far cry from the stilted and overly-managed efforts of his predecessor, Jim Kelly, who was very much part of the Powell and Armitage crowd but did not seem to be trusted by anyone else. 

So in terms of skills and stature, we’ve got the right person there.  But the key question is: what does he have in his diplomatic bag of tricks?  The Administration got caught flat-footed a few weeks ago when the North Koreans announced that they would return to the 6-party talks, and they publicly state that there is no new American position.  They claim to have had success in pressuring the Chinese to take a more forceful role, although many Asia experts dispute that.  The prospects for success seemed to get new life a few weeks ago when South Korea announced that it would supply energy to North Korea—at cost of billions of dollars--if it gives up its nuclear programs.

It is anyone’s guess whether there is a deal to be had—whether North Korea actually will agree to anything that blocks its desire to be a nuclear power.  But for too long, the U.S. policy has been to leave things up to the allies (note the irony—while many complain that the Bush team ignores allies, this is a case when we’ve deferred to them too much).  Now that we have a negotiator on the ground who has a track record of success in dealing with tough talks (and my guess is that his interlocutors know this) and, importantly, the trust and confidence of officials in Washington, what has started this week is the best chance we’ve had for some kind of breakthrough since this crisis erupted nearly three years ago.  Stay tuned. 


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» Let's hope they let him work from Stygius
For two days now, the US and North Korea have been engaging in bilateral talks under the 6-party aegis. This is precisely what the US needs; a fairly closed environment and low expectations may lead to the kind of incremental breakthrough that will br... [Read More]


Good point about George Bush leaving the hard negotiating work with North Korea to other countries. I blogged about how that's also true in Iran here - - and I'd be interested to know if you agree.

Good point about George Bush leaving the hard negotiating work with North Korea to other countries

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