NORTH KOREA: BEHIND THE BAMBOO CURTAIN
Ambassador Christopher R. Hill
, Dean, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver; former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs; and former US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Poland, and Macedonia
Summary by Richard C. Longworth
North Korea is an incompetent and forbidding country, actually proud of its isolation and opacity, led by a young president “not ready for prime time,” Ambassador Chris Hill told The Chicago Council Tuesday evening. Its nuclear ambitions do threaten Washington and its Asian allies, but when it collapses, as it must, “we want to be prepared for it.”
Hill, the diplomat and scholar who has spent as much time as any American wrestling with the North Korean challenge, said the Obama Administration “has done a good job” of aligning US policy with Japan and South Korea. The task now, he said, is to bring China into this united front.
Hill’s full name is Christopher R. Hill, but he is a legendary envoy known just as Chris to admirers and adversaries from Beijing to Baghdad. A former US ambassador to South Korea, Iraq and other major postings, Hill was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in 2005-2009 and led the US delegation to the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. He now is dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Hill said that saber-rattlers – in Pyongyang, Washington, or Beijing – don’t understand the situation.
First, he said, “we’re entering this crisis with little knowledge.” North Korea itself may not know what it wants. Most of its outward hostility is rooted in its opaque domestic politics, and we don’t know much about these politics or the character of the new and untested “supreme leader,” Kim Jong-un.
“Nobody knows what the North Koreans are up to,” he said. “The negotiating process is in the deep freeze.” American diplomats have met fewer senior leaders recently than Dennis Rodman, the bizarre former Chicago Bull who recently visited Pyongyang, he said.
Second, he said, diplomats know that many problems “are not going to easily solved,” but must be contained and waited out. North Korea may be one of those problems. For now, we must get on “the same page of music” with our allies, be seen as a positive force in the region, and work on China to pressure its North Korean allies to abandon their nuclear programs.
Third, Hill said, America’s number one foreign policy priority is the Chinese relationship. So we have to understand China’s “top issue” and, right now, that’s North Korea.
The conventional wisdom says that China’s policy is based on fear that, if the North Korean regime collapses, China will be swamped by 23 million Korean refugees. Not true, Hill said. In fact, China sees the Korean situation as a struggle between two Koreas – one capitalist, one communist – and if North Korea fails, it will challenge the legitimacy of China’s own Communist regime.
“This would force a debate within China on its domestic system, and they are not ready to have this debate.”
Despite this, he said, China recently issued veiled statements criticizing Pyongyang. He said this is in China’s own interest – not least, in its relations with Washington and its Asian neighbors.
Possibly, he said, “the Chinese have had enough…..If the North Koreans feel that China is not with them, that’s very good for the region.”
So it’s time now for us “to have a serious conversation with the Chinese” on Korea. “The Chinese have to understand what we want to do” – which, he said, does not include putting troops or listening posts on the Yalu River, next door to China.
“China has a lot of things it needs to do in the world. It shouldn’t put itself in the position of being the chief support of a regime that defies description.”
Kim Jong-un, who is either 29 or 30 years old, took over as leader 16 months ago when his father died and remains a mystery, Hill indicated.
Kim Jong-un “is as not ready for prime time as any leader in the world,” he said. He’s a leader who “is not in charge.” The military seems to be leading, he said. But Kim “is a leader who’s not really a leader,” at the head of an isolated country that doesn’t know it’s perceived in the world.”
It’s a regime, he said, “that only a mother can love………I don’t see this going on forever but when that (a collapse) happens, we want to be prepared for it,” hopefully in step with the South Koreans, Japanese, and China.
Hill, whose diplomatic career spanned 33 years and six administrations, was especially critical of the ”bellicose” approach of the Bush Administration in 2001-03 that led to South Koreans seeing the United States as the “chief culprit” in the Korean standoff.
“This was frankly killing us,” he said. South Korea is on the front lines there and U.S.-Korean policy must be aligned.
Hill said that Allied policy insists that Pyongyang must abandon all nuclear programs. It has been told that everything, including normal diplomatic relations “is possible with no nuclearization, but nothing is possible with nuclearization.”
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy and global issues. Views expressed in event summaries are solely those of the author, not The Chicago Council, which takes no institutional positions.