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(Yonhap Interview) Ex-U.S. nuclear envoy: Real problem is N. Korea's lack of interest in denuclearization

2015/09/16 08:09

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (Yonhap) -- The "real problem" with the long-running standoff over North Korea's nuclear program is Pyongyang's total lack of interest in denuclearization, former chief nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill said Tuesday.

Hill made the remark during a phone interview with Yonhap News Agency ahead of the 10th anniversary of a landmark agreement that the six-party talks produced in 2005, in which Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear program in exchange for diplomatic recognition and economic concessions.

"I think the real problem today is that North Korea has clearly lost interest in fulfilling its obligations under the Joint Statement. I think the other parties have under various occasions reaffirmed their commitments to the six parties. But it is pretty clear North Korea has repudiated its own commitments," Hill said.

Hill said the agreement, known as the "Sept. 19 Joint Statement," was a "historic event."

   "I think it was historic in a number of ways. Importantly, I think the ROK and the U.S. worked very closely on that agreement. It's something that for many months we have worked on in Beijing and in Seoul and also in Washington," Hill said.

"Secondly, I think it was important to get China directly involved in the process, and as chair of the six-party talks, China played a very important role in getting that agreement," he said.

This file photo taken on March 4, 2015, shows former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who served as Washington`s lead negotiator in the six-party talks on North Korea`s nuclear program, speaking during an international conference in Seoul. (Yonhap)This file photo taken on March 4, 2015, shows former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who served as Washington`s lead negotiator in the six-party talks on North Korea`s nuclear program, speaking during an international conference in Seoul. (Yonhap) Implementation of the agreement showed some progress in following years, with North Korea demolishing a cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2007 in a show of its commitment to denuclearization. But disagreement over verifying Pyongyang's past nuclear activity led to the suspension of the negotiations.

The six-party talks, which brought together the two Koreas, China, Japan and the United States, have not been held since the last meeting in late 2008. Pyongyang, which conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, has since conducted two more nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013.

North Korea has called for the unconditional resumption of the negotiations, but the U.S. and South Korea have demanded that the communist nation first take concrete steps demonstrating it's serious about giving up its nuclear program.

"I do not believe that we should be going back to negotiations in the absence of any indication from the North Koreans that they are prepared to negotiate," Hill said.

"They have repudiated their commitments, and in so doing, they have created a situation where, for us to go back would appear that we are simply having a repeat of what we did before, and I think that would not look positive. If anything, it would look weak on our part," he said.

Hill said the six-party talks are still a viable format if the North is interested in denuclearization.

"I don't think the problem with negotiations with North Korea has to do with the type of talks. Whether it's six-nation talks or four-nation talks or 44-nation talks," he said. "What matters is that North Korea is prepared to talk on the basis of the goal of the talks, which is denuclearization."

   The 2005 agreement was negotiated when late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was alive. Though the Kim Jong-il regime was extremely difficult to negotiate with, it still had "some interest" in the process of denuclearization, Hill said.

But now, the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has no interest in denuclearization.

"Unfortunately, I cannot detect any interest on the part of the regime of Kim Jong-un. He seems to be interested in some kind of economic development, albeit amusement parks in Pyongyang, but I don't really see much direction in his regime except toward greater isolation," he said.

Hill, currently dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, said it is important to create incentives, such as sanctions, for the North to come back to the negotiating table, but it is also important to beef up missile defenses and other measures.

"If we can sharpen the choices with sanctions, I'm all in favor of that, but I also think we need to do other things, including work even harder on the issue of missile defense and other means to try to ensure that their nuclear arsenal becomes obsolete the day it is deployed," he said.

Time is not on the U.S. side, but it's not on the North Korean side either, Hill said.

"I don't like to say that time is on our side in this process of what became known as strategic patience," he said.

"At the same time, I don't think time is on the side of the North Koreans. I see a country that is further isolated, further falling behind, and otherwise, I think becoming a kind of historical relic of history, whose eventual end will come because of their failure to engage in a process.

The contrast between the North and Iran is "quite striking," he said, stressing that the Middle East nation has come to a conclusion it needs to join the international community, despite tremendous opposition from within the country.

Referring to the North's recent hint at the possibility of conducting a nuclear or missile test, Hill said he believes China must have worked hard to convince Pyongyang not to carry out an additional nuclear test.

"If something like that comes, I hope we will, the ROK and the U.S. and others, will work very hard with the Chinese on what needs to be done," he said.