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U.S. Envoy Says North Korean Uranium Program Remains Stumbling Block

Interviewee: Christopher T. Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Deputy Editor
February 15, 2008

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The denuclearization deal signed by North Korea on February 13, 2007, marked its first anniversary stalled over Pyongyang’s lack of a full declaration of its programs. The envoy leading the U.S. effort in the Six-Party Talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, says the dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor remains a positive sign of cooperation. But he says a chief problem at this stage is getting North Korea to admit to any past uranium-enrichment efforts as well as to dealings with third parties like Syria. North Korean officials are prepared to say they have no enrichment or export programs under way, but that is not sufficient, Hill says. “We really do need to know what all went on before, if it stopped, when did it stop.” In response to criticism of the negotiating process by the U.S. human rights envoy, Hill said rights issues will eventually become central to the talks.

We’re about six weeks past the deadline for North Korea to declare its nuclear activities and at the one-year anniversary of the denuclearization deal. In some circles it’s seen as stopped in its tracks or even off the rails. Should we expect to see a declaration from North Korea in the near future?

In order to go forward, we’re going to need to get a declaration. A declaration is part of what is called Phase Two, and it’s called for very explicitly in the agreement, including in the October [2007] agreement. So the North Koreans know they have to provide a declaration. The problem is not that they’re not willing to provide a declaration. The problem is they don’t want to give us a complete and correct one. And we don’t want to accept something that’s less than complete, less than correct. So we’re continuing to go back and forth with them on this. And we certainly made it clear to our other partners in the process that we need a complete, correct [declaration]. So I don’t want to talk about the process being off the rails. In many respects some good things have happened, including the disabling of the nuclear facility, which is something they had never done before. So we’re going to stick with it and see if we can get something.

The weapons-grade plutonium—apparently toward the end of last year the North Koreans came in with an estimate that was seen as not realistic. Can you talk about that? And then separate from that, the uranium-enrichment program?

Let me break the declaration down into three major components. First, nuclear materials. Second, nuclear facilities. Third, nuclear programs. Under nuclear materials, they are prepared to give us a figure for the separated plutonium. The plutonium they produced from this facility is presumably sitting in a bunker somewhere. From my way of thinking, it is not so important what the figure is. What is important is that we be able to verify it. So people who say it’s too small really are in no position to say that until we can verify it. Now, if it comes in at fifty kilos and the verification process turns out it should be sixty, then we have a gap of ten. That’s a problem. If it comes in at thirty and the verification shows that thirty is correct, then we don’t have a problem. Under the facilities, we kind of know what kind of facilities they have. They know what kind of facilities they have. They know what we know about their facilities. We’ll probably be okay on facilities.

The third area is the big problem: that’s programs. And here they’re prepared to tell us all about the plutonium program, but we already know about the plutonium program. We have U.S. technicians crawling around Yongbyon as we speak dealing with that. The real thing we need to know about is the uranium enrichment and any export programs that they’ve had. Now they’re prepared to say, in the category of uranium enrichment and the export programs, that they don’t have anything going now, and they won’t in the future. And some of our partners are saying, “Well, two out of three is not bad.” But we really do need to know what all went on before, if it stopped, when did it stop, etc. We really need clarity on this. Again, some people say, “Why do you worry so much about the past?” Well, frankly we need to know what they’ve been up to. And I don’t think we can really go forward with some of our obligations until we have a complete picture.

Another stumbling block mentioned is the issue of third-state assistance, in this case Syria. That’s generating a lot of concern. What is the extent of dialogue on that issue, on assistance to Syria, the site that was targeted by the Israelis [in September 2007]? And will the Six-Party Talks get into that issue?

We’ve made it abundantly clear to the North Koreans that the issue of nuclear cooperation with abroad, whether it’s Syria or other states—we need to know all about that. And it’s not enough to do as they’re doing now which is to say, “We don’t have any, we won’t in the future.” We need to know what they’ve done in the past. We do know some information about some of their programs from the past. Some of this came out only recently, and some of the issues you are alluding to in Syria are fairly new issues. So we need to know what they’ve been up to. And I would say that in order to go forward, we need to get some clarity on that.

There’s been some calls within the United States from the human rights community, human rights envoys, for making human rights part of the dialogue, and maybe even raising the issue of a Helsinki-type process [of engagement]. Could that work at this stage?

Well, people who are well informed on this issue understand that as we get through this declaration, we will then go to something called the Third Phase. Now what we would like in the Third Phase is for North Korea to not only dismantle all of their programs, but also to give up, to abandon, pursuant to the September 2005 agreement, to abandon their separated plutonium, and any other fissile material they have. Now, in order to get that, we’re going to put a few things on the table. And one of them is normalization with the United States, a bilateral normalization process. As part of normalization, we will of course be discussing human rights, and we have been discussing human rights. And I don’t think we should ever be afraid to discuss human rights.

The problem is not that they’re not willing to provide a declaration. The problem is they don’t want to give us a complete and correct one. And we don’t want to accept something that’s less than complete, less than correct.

Human rights needs to be understood by the North Koreans as really the price of admission to the international community. So as we discuss our normalization, of course this subject will be discussed. But what we would like the North Koreans to come to understand is that human rights is something that they don’t have a choice on, that if they want to join the international community, they have to start living up to some human rights standards. This is not just some desiderata on the part of the United States. This has to do with international obligations. And so, to the extent that we can convey this, of course we’ll convey it through this bilateral process of leading to normalization.

So in Phase Three, that focus comes more into sharper relief?

Yes, because in Phase Three, we would put several things on the table. One is the normalization path with the United States. Obviously human rights would be a part of that as we go forward. But we will also be putting on the table an effort to get North Korea access to international financial institutions and to international organizations, generally, that they’re not a part of. And here, too, human rights will be a part of that.

Very soon South Korea will have a new president taking office, President Lee [Myung-bak] . Do you see that as possibly a move that will create some sort of catalyst for momentum?

First of all we’ve worked well with the South Koreans throughout the Six-Party process. And this new administration is indicating it will have a somewhat different approach on some of the issues, namely North-South [relations]. The president-elect, President Lee Myung-bak, has talked about having more reciprocity involved in the assistance that South Korea gives to North Korea directly. So we can probably expect some change, but it will obviously be up to the new administration as it takes off to survey the situation and see what it wants, and what it wants to do.

South Korea and China, there are concerns that their sort of unconditional aid to North Korea has in some ways undermined the leverage that could be brought to bear in really forcing the North Koreans to accept more readily some of the conditions of the agreement. What is your view on that?

Well, it’s important that what South Korea and what China does directly with North Korea gets somehow coordinated with the Six-Party process because we can’t have a situation where the things we give North Korea through the Six-Party process become sort of to the right of the decimal point compared to what’s going in directly.

Some people say, “Why do you worry so much about the past?” Well, frankly we need to know what they’ve been up to. And I don’t think we can really go forward with some of our obligations until we have a complete picture.

But I do want to caution American audiences, in particular, to understand that in Korea, there is a real feeling that what happened in Korea in the middle of the twentieth century that resulted in the division of the Korean peninsula came about through no fault of Korean people, but rather through sort of international big powers arrangements. And indeed, the division of the Korean peninsula came about by happenstance, where U.S. troops took surrendered Japanese troops south of the 38th parallel, and Soviet troops took their surrender north of the 38th parallel. In short, this division is a great tragedy in Korea. And we as Americans need to be sensitive to the fact that many Koreans—even Koreans who are not so anxious to reunite, or who see all the impediments of unification, the economic challenges involved—even to those Koreans, there is a great deal of anxiety about what happened in the mid-twentieth century. And if we end up wagging our finger at Koreans and telling them how to deal with North Korea, we could be doing that at some peril to the relationship.

At this stage what’s the concern that there’s this lame-duck feeling, that people are waiting for this process to play out, and then a new U.S. administration to come in? Has this been a hindrance at this point, this perception? Are you getting this from Asian diplomats?

I’m certainly not getting it from the North Koreans, who indicated a desire to try to wrap this up in 2008. But it is fair to say that as the days and weeks roll by, where we haven’t got through Phase Two, obviously it becomes a greater challenge to try to wrap everything up on the timescale that we want it wrapped up. So we do need to pick up the pace if we’re going to succeed here. But what’s been very important for the North Koreans to understand is this issue of dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has not been politicized in the United States. We have both parties, Democrats and Republicans, very much wanting to see this resolved, and pretty much wanting to see it resolved on similar terms. So I’m hopeful that the North Koreans understand that, and frankly the sooner the better. If we can get this resolved, the sooner North Korea can begin to address the very acute needs of their people.

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