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(Yonhap Interview) Ex-U.S. negotiator not optimistic about nuke talks with N. Korea
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Oct. 26 (Yonhap) -- Defending his much-criticized nuclear talks with North Korea and admitting nostalgia for his tumultuous work as chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill said Wednesday that he is not optimistic about the current dialogue with the communist nation, emboldened by an advanced nuclear weapons program.

   "I am not a big optimist right now," Hill said in an interview about the direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea in Geneva earlier this week, mainly aimed at reviving the six-party talks.

   "As supportive as I continue to be of the six-party process, I am not optimistic about any early breakthroughs," he added. "This lack of optimism does not mean our efforts should in any way diminish."

   Speaking after a congressional hearing here on the Seoul-Washington alliance and North Korea, he said the resumption of the talks has become "very difficult" because the North has moved ahead in their nuclear program. In November, Pyongyang revealed an uranium enrichment facility.

   "Getting the North Koreans to do the right thing right now is difficult and I don't envy the difficult job my successors have," Hill said, adding a positive thing is that Washington and Seoul maintain close cooperation in dealing with Pyongyang.

Christopher Hill talks to Yonhap News Agency reporters in a Congress building in Washington on Oct. 26. (Yonhap)

He served as Washington's chief negotiator with Pyongyang for three years from 2005, followed by a year-long stint as ambassador to Seoul.

   He made some important denuclearization deals with North Korea, including the Sept. 19, 2005, Joint Statement, through a series of direct and multilateral negotiations.

   But his accomplishments were overshadowed by the North's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. He came under harsh political attack in Washington. He retired last year after serving as ambassador to Iraq.

   Hill, now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, said meeting with Korean reporters here made him "nostalgic."

   He joked that he really wants to go to meet North Korea's top nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan.

   He also expressed a cautious view on food aid for North Korea.

   "I would want to look very, very carefully at the technical issues and whether you know what the needs are. I have always felt that food aid is a context of humanitarian process," he said, stressing the importance of adequate monitoring and confirmation of how urgent the North's needs are in comparison to other regions.

   In the House hearing, Hill spent much of the time defending the way he negotiated with the North Koreans and what was achieved.

   He said he was not "naive" about the possibility that North Korea would abandon its nuclear program.

   Hill pointed out the North shut down its major plutonium production facilities in Yongbyon as a result of his negotiations.

   He added that the North Koreans are to blame for the breakdown of the talks in the end as they did not allow the U.S. to inspect undeclared nuclear sites suspected of being linked to uranium enrichment.

   He rejected former Vice President Dick Cheney's accusations against him, which reappeared in his recent memoir.

   Hill said as assistant secretary of state, he was following the instructions of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who received orders from President George W. Bush.

   Hill said he is writing his own book on the controversial negotiations with North Korea.

   He predicted the North Korean nuclear issue will come to an end some day.

   "North Korea will either become a respectable member of the international community or it will collapse. We need to be prepared for however events take this," he said. "I am convinced that on its present course North Korea's days are numbered."

   As a former ambassador to Seoul, meanwhile, Hill said he was happy to see constant progress such as a free trade agreement and the U.S. visa waiver program for South Koreans, which "no one thought it was really possible" when he took the post in Seoul in 2004.

   He said he was "very, very proud of Sung Kim," who was a member of his nuclear negotiating team and now confirmed by the Senate as ambassador to South Korea.

   Hill lauded Kim for his extraordinary service at the State Department.

   "I think there is no better person to be going out to Seoul and to continue that role," Hill said as he left the House building, with a bag on his back, to fly back to Denver.