Former ambassador gives Steamboat real story on North Korean diplomacy

Frances Hohl
Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A former ambassador under three American presidents — and for years, the go-to guy for North Korea policy — regaled a Steamboat Springs audience Monday night with stories of life from the front lines of diplomacy.

But more significantly, Ambassador Christopher Hill assured the audience there’s a real chance for North Korean denuclearization to occur, thanks to people like current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is willing to reach out for expert advice, and probably no thanks to hardliners like National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Hill even projected his envy at how President Trump loosened the severe diplomatic restraints that he himself was forced to work under in the mid-2000s.

Hill spoke on “Diplomacy and Action: U.S. Options for North Korea” as part of the Seminars at Steamboat series focusing on public policy affecting the United States.

While Hill’s talk was scheduled 10 months ago by the Seminars board, it couldn’t have been more prescient considering the recent historic Singapore meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Hill led the six-party talks under President George W. Bush, a regional negotiation that came closest to having North Korea give up their nuclear weapons.

Hill marveled how under Bush he virtually had his hands tied when communicating with North Koreans. He told the audience he wasn’t even allowed to pick up a champagne glass and “toast” with a North Korean in the room.

“I was getting instructions to stay as far away from the North Koreans… ‘You will not meet them except when the Chinese are in the room.’ Great advice like that … as if that is going to move the process,” Hill said to a rapt audience. “It wasn’t going to work.”

Ironically, said Hill, the same people who gave him those instructions are the same people in the White House today.

“I’m referring to the National Security Advisor John Bolton,” Hill said.

“That is a very different approach as our President (Trump) got ready for the meeting in Singapore,” Hill continued. “I can assure you the President wasn’t saying to anyone ‘and when I go there, I’m going to refuse to shake his hand, I’m going to refuse to reciprocate a toast.’”

While Hill credits Trump and Pompeo with loosening diplomatic relationships with North Korea, he also pointed out that Singapore only produced a loosely worded document that didn’t even come close to what North Korea had agreed on in 2005 after the six-party negotiations. Hill said Trump could have used the original 2005 agreement to start the conversation.

“Here’s the statement you (North Korea) agreed to (in 2005) … abandon all your nuclear weapons and all your nuclear program and return to the nonproliferation treaty. Do you still agree to this? If not, what do you not agree with?”

Hill said he’s spoken to Pompeo, who is reaching out to policy makers and diplomats from all backgrounds.

“I told him I thought the biggest issue emanating from Singapore is the fact there’s no regional architecture yet,” Hill told the audience.

He explained that China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are all affected by what happens in North Korea.

“People say ‘why would we ever want to work with China?’” Hill said. “Working with China is hard. Working against China is harder. We need to be respectful of other countries located there.”

Besides numerous clever pokes at well-known figures and private stories that kept the audience amused, Hill also talked about what makes Kim Jong Un tick.

“I talked with North Korean defectors, including a guy who defected from their embassy in London, and he, in particular, said ‘this isn’t about you, Americans, it’s not even about South Korea. It’s about his competition with his deceased father and his deceased grandfather,’” both who failed to unify the Korean peninsula or develop a nuclear weapon to reach the U.S., Hill said.

No matter what makes Kim Jong Un tick, Hill said the best way to convince him to get rid of his nuclear weapons is to convince him he would be better off without them.

“If you give up these weapons, we’re prepared to do a lot with you, including a civil nuclear program to help power (the country) … we’ll help you trade, help you integrate in the international community,” Hill said.

“If you do continue with your nuclear weapons, we will come after you wherever you are,” Hill continued. “We will make sure no bank in the world is going to ever open a North Korean banking account again. If you try to open a bank account on the moon, we will build a rocket ship … go up to the moon and shut down that bank.”

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