When it comes to North Korea, Christopher Hill is someone whose opinion counts.
Between 2005 and 2009, Hill was the assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and served as the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea in the George W. Bush administration. Hill, 65, also served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea and later as ambassador to Iraq in the Barack Obama administration. He is now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Hill, who also keeps a home and sailboat on Treasure Island, will be speaking Wednesday night at the University of South Florida’s Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. He spoke with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday about the crisis with North Korea.
What is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s endgame with his nuclear and ballistic missile programs? Is Kim moving forward because he saw what happened to Ghadaffi in Libya and Hussein in Iraq, neither of whom had nuclear weapons, and does not want to suffer the same fate?
I think what people have tried to explain over the years is that somehow, North Koreans are worried the U.S. will attack them, therefore to prevent that from happening, they’ve developed nuclear weapons. First of all, we have never threatened North Korea. The history since the Korean War until now has been South Koreans getting angry about one North Korean provocation after another and us holding them back. The whole idea that they need nuclear weapons for defensive purposes is not justified by the evidence.
So what’s the reason?
Kim Jong-un is trying to fulfill his father’s unfinished business and his grandfather’s unfinished business. His father’s unfinished business (is) making North Korea a nuclear weapons state. But the problem with the father, in the view of his son, is that he was too close to China. We can see that Kim Jong-un is staying away from China and not listening to what China tells him to do, namely give up nuclear weapons. More ominously, he is looking to fulfill his grandfather’s ambitions to unify the Korean peninsula. What went wrong in 1950 are two words — American troops. I think, and I have heard from North Korean refugees, is that what Kim is trying to do is decouple the U.S. from South Korea.
What is your assessment of Kim?
I think he is reckless, inexperienced. He certainly shows signs of megalomania, but I am not a psychiatrist. He certainly is ambitious and filled with a sense that in order to cement his legitimacy, he needs to complete his father and grandfather’s unfinished business. It is a kind of all-in-the-family thing.
Would getting rid of Kim work?
It would probably not be a bad day, but we are not very good at that stuff. Taking out other country’s leaders has never gone very well.
And we don’t know who would come next.
That’s another point. I never thought there would be anyone worse than Kim Jong-Il but now we have gotten a look at his son.
How would you grade President Trump’s handling of the crisis and does his rhetoric, calling Kim "Little Rocket Man" and making overt threats help or hurt?
His rhetoric does not help, mainly not because of North Korea, who cares? But his rhetoric does not help with the South Korean or Japanese public. He had very low popularity among those key populations. His rhetoric also allows the Chinese to get off the hook by saying, both the U.S. and North Korea need to be more reasonable. That said, I think he has done the right thing in trying to stay close to South Korea and Japan. He has done the right thing in being vigorous in trying to take this up with the U.N. and getting a stronger sanctions package that includes China. He has done the right thing in saying China is key, but he has done the wrong thing in how he pursues it, suggesting that China be sort of a subcontractor or outsource this to China rather than work together.
How is the administration’s execution on the Korean crisis?
Trump has a lot of the right elements, but it is in the execution that he falls short. And of course, to talk about the diplomatic approach assumes you have some diplomats. Frankly, it is not just his problem, but the problem of the rather strange Secretary of State we have. (Rex Tillerson) is better at making gasoline than making diplomacy.
China and Russia have suggested what they call a "dual suspension" approach, in which North Korea freezes its weapons programs in turn for the U.S. halting joint military drills, like the current massive Vigilant Ace, where more than 200 aircraft and more than 12,000 U.S. troops are now taking part. Is that approach workable?
I agree with Tillerson. I think it is a very bad idea because first of all, reaction to North Korean provocations should not be freezing these exercises. Secondly, I think that part of the overall North Korean approach is to weaken the U.S.-South Korean relationship. If our alliance was reduced to just paper rather than exercises in the field, I don’t think that is helpful.
Is there a diplomatic solution to this mess?
I think we have to work very hard with China. I think we need to look for direct measures such as a cyber attack or some kind of sabotage to slow down their program. It is otherwise to be very aggressive but not in a way that will upset South Korea or usher in a moment where North Korea retaliates and we have a second Korean War. I think diplomacy needs to come now with China, also with other countries. The Europeans need to understand this is not just an American or Chinese problem. You are talking to someone who spent four years with them. I did test diplomacy to the point where a lot of people thought I was soft on them, which I am not. We had much more leverage then than we do now. They have made a lot of progress on their nuclear programs, but they don’t have gasoline refinery capacity and if we get to the point where they are not receiving gasoline from China, then they will have a problem. But whether China is ready to comply on that remains to be seen and speaks to the fact they are split on the issue. Many in China, especially the security forces, are more worried about U.S. military presence on the peninsula than about the North Korean nuclear program ...The big question is our President up to this? Does he know how to handle this? Do we have a President who is up to the kind of world-class challenge?
This is where we have a big problem, because I don’t think this President has shown the sort of intellectual depth, or frankly the strategic sense, to manage these kinds of things. The more he talks, the more he makes these loose comments everyone laughs at him for, the less people take him seriously in the world and that is a problem. When the President speaks, you need to take it to the bank. With him you just take it to your late-night comic.
Given concerns about the North Korean weapons programs, should the U.S. strike first?
They have 14,000 artillery tubes. They are one of the big tunnelers of all time. A lot of their military assets are underground. It would create a huge crisis in our relationship with South Korea if we did not tell them. And we would not hit what we need to hit. We can take out their plutonium reactors, but aside from the dangers of bombing a nuclear facility, we don’t know where their highly enriched uranium is. If North Korea strikes, then we have to do what we have to do. But a preemptive strike on our part will not solve the problem.
The North Koreans just fired off a missile that can hit Washington D.C. Does that worry you?
I am less concerned about those kinds of near-term scenarios, where they are going to launch a bolt out of the blue. I don’t think that is the issue. The longer-term method of weakening our presence in the region is.
Senator Lindsey Graham recently urged dependents of the nearly 30,000 U.S. military personnel in South Korea to leave. How close are we to war?
I don’t think we are close to war. I don’t think we are looking at evacuations. As far as Lindsey Graham is concerned, God bless him. I wish I had an opinion every three seconds of the day. I am not sure he is all that knowledgeable.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.