[TODAY]A crucial moment for Mr. Hill

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[TODAY]A crucial moment for Mr. Hill

Christopher Hill, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Asia and Pacific affairs, may be waging a hard and lonely battle against conservatives in Washington right now. It is by no means an easy task to persuade the hard-liners in the Bush administration that it is necessary to resume the six-party talks and have final negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear arms programs, and to make them understand that the prospects of negotiations are brighter now than they have been in the past year.
It appears that Mr. Hill’s attempt to persuade the conservatives will reach a crucial stage this week. Mr. Hill needs to present two different lines of argument at a strategic meeting at which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff will dissect, translate and evaluate what Kim Jong-il said to Unification Minister Chung Dong-young.
The first argument is that Kim Jong-il’s statement that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was the will of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and that the North might attend the six-party talks in July, is not necessarily a tactic to buy time or to alienate South Korea from the United States. The second argument is that the United States should be receptive to South Korea’s request to refrain from making remarks that provoke North Korea at the time when the chances of resuming the six-party talks have improved dramatically.
North Korea is under a firm one-man-rule system. It is true that North Korea drove the six-party talks to the brink of collapse by declaring its possession of nuclear weapons in February and continuing to make statements to that effect through its high-ranking officials. Still, it goes without saying that Kim Jong-il’s assurances, to a special envoy sent by South Korea’s president, that he is committed to the denuclearization of the peninsula, and his expression of willingness to return to the six-party talks, supersede all of the statements and announcements made before.
Mr. Hill is probably trying to determine the context of Kim Jong-il’s remarks. For the past six months, North Korea appears to have been concentrating on resolving an internal conflict over whether to continue to live an internationally isolated life as a nuclear state or exchange its nuclear weapons for a guarantee of the security of its system.
Prevalent in the minds of North Koreans must be images of the formidable Stealth fighter-bomber that the United States deployed in South Korea, and an awareness of the terrible state of its economy, which nuclear weapons cannot improve. North Korea has probably decided to go with the latter choice for now, and has announced that to the world in the presence of Unification Minister Chung Dong-young.
Mr. Hill is the person in the Bush administration who best understands South Korea’s position. Mr. Hill sympathizes with Seoul’s view that the nuclear crisis can only be solved diplomatically, through such means as the six-party talks, inter-Korean dialogue or bilateral talks between Pyongyang and Washington, and not by such hard-line methods as pre-emptive strikes, economic sanctions or taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council.
In chatting with a South Korean Internet user, Mr. Hill even expressed the desire to visit Pyongyang and meet Kim Jong-il. He is practically staking his career at the State Department on the North Korean nuclear problem.
At such a sensitive time, the remark made a few days ago by a State Department official, repeating the characterization of North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny,” can only be an act of sabotage by Washington conservatives. To hear such a remark from a high-ranking U.S. official, so soon after Mr. Bush confirmed to President Roh Moo-hyun that he wanted a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue, makes us again feel the absence of Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state. I hope Mr. Hill will bridge the gap left by Mr. Powell’s departure, but it is even more important that Mr. Bush discipline his administration in terms of its diplomatic line.
Conservatives in the United States consider South Korea a country that has thrown away all whips and sticks when it comes to dealing with North Korea, and is left clinging to a carrot. This may be true. Washington’s biggest complaint in this regard is that South Korea treats the nuclear issue as separate from inter-Korean cooperattion. In other words, U.S. conservatives think South Korea is too busy flattering the North to think about using its humanitarian aid as leverage.
But the nuclear issue was the most important agenda item at the meeting between Kim Jong-il and Chung Dong-young, and at the subsequent inter-Korean ministerial talks. So Washington should stop worrying about this. South Korea’s policy toward the North seems to have finally reached a point at which inter-Korean dialogue and the nuclear issue have converged.
This is an important change, and Seoul needs to make active use of it as a selling point to the United States. Still, the role of Mr. Hill is more important than anything else. I hope, based on the recent Roh-Bush summit and the resumed inter-Korean dialogue, that Mr. Hill’s understanding of the North Korean nuclear problem and his prescription for solving it will spread in Washington, leading to a resumption of the six-party talks. And I hope that North Korea will invite Mr. Hill to Pyongyang and that they will work on developing trust as a basis for getting positive results out of those talks.

* The writer is an adviser and senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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