Updated with transcript: As NPR reported, recent tension between Washington and Pyongyang saw President Trump promise to respond to North Korean nuclear threats with "fire and fury" while North Korea threatened to conduct missile tests in waters near the U.S. territory of Guam.
Ambassador Christopher Hill was the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. Now the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, he tells Colorado Matters "efforts to bring the Kim regime back to the negotiating table are misguided." Here's why:
"The Kim Jong-Un administration has been very much opposed to any kind of de-nuclearization. So they have really made abundantly clear they have no interest in going back to negotiation on the basis of de-nuclearization, which was the whole purpose of what was called the Six Party Talks, that is, the effort of then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin and then-President George W. Bush to get all of the actors around the same table: Russia, South Korea, Japan, China, US, North Korea," he says.
"The problem is the North Koreans of course would like to talk to us, but they want to talk to us as one nuclear power to another. So I think we need to keep the door open to talks and we should never put ourselves in the position as they did in the first term of the George W. Bush administration of saying we won't talk to those people. We need to keep the door open, because we need to show the South Korean people, who after all live a lot closer to North Korea than people in think tanks in Washington for example. So we need to show those South Koreans that yes, we're prepared to talk, but the problem is, we don't have a partner at this point. We don't have a North Korean partner ready to talk on the basis of de-nuclearization."
Read the full transcript:
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is in Asia this week to address the nuclear threat from North Korea. He says the military's ready to act if it needs to, though the US still wants to defuse the situation through diplomacy and sanctions.
The North's effort to develop a nuclear program goes back decades, of course, and so do the US efforts to stop it. Under President George W. Bush, those efforts were led by Ambassador Christopher Hill. He now heads the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and joins us from DU.
Ambassador, welcome back to the program.
Ambassador Christopher Hill: Thank you very much.
RW: We have learned recently that the interior US is within striking distance of North Korean missiles. But you wrote recently, "Efforts to bring the Kim regime back to the negotiating table are misguided." Why?
CH: Well, let me put that in some context. The Kim Jong-Un administration has been very much opposed to any kind of de-nuclearization. So they have really made abundantly clear they have no interest in going back to negotiation on the basis of de-nuclearization, which was the whole purpose of what was called the Six Party Talks, that is, the effort of then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin and then-President George W. Bush to get all of the actors around the same table: Russia, South Korea, Japan, China, US, North Korea.
The problem is the North Koreans of course would like to talk to us, but they want to talk to us as one nuclear power to another. So I think we need to keep the door open to talks and we should never put ourselves in the position as they did in the first term of the George W. Bush administration of saying we won't talk to those people. We need to keep the door open, because we need to show the South Korean people, who after all live a lot closer to North Korea than people in think tanks in Washington for example. So we need to show those South Koreans that yes, we're prepared to talk, but the problem is, we don't have a partner at this point. We don't have a North Korean partner ready to talk on the basis of de-nuclearization.
RW: So are you saying that the Trump administration should approach this in that nuclear power to nuclear power worldview? Or that de-nuclearization in some form has any kind of fighting chance?
CH: I think we need talks on the basis of what we talked about for years and which North Korea accepted, which is to do away with their nuclear weapons. Now, clearly Kim Jong-Un is not ready to do that, and that's why we need a much more comprehensive, in depth discussion with the Chinese on how we're going to get North Korea back to the table on the basis of something that could be workable for us, that is de-nuclearization. If we get them back to the table on the basis of their view that well, if the US does away with some of its nuclear weapons, we'll consider restraint in some of our nuclear weapons, as if they're the Soviet Union or something. This is not really a prescription for any kind of success.
I think we need to have a much more in-depth discussion with the Chinese, and I think ultimately a discussion with Chinese on what is going to work. Certainly, China has stepped up their support and enforcement of sanctions, but at this point, one has to worry that the sanctions train is moving more slowly than the nuclearization train that is the North Korean capacity to build deliverable nuclear weapons, which, most people don't believe they have that capacity now, but I think everyone believes that they will have the capacity in the near future.
RW: Let me say that China has banned imports of North Korean seafood, coal, and iron, starting today, I believe, and that announcement came after President Trump spoke with China's president this past week, according to the Wall Street Journal.
It seems to me that there have been some near misses in reaching an agreement with North Korea, so the US almost had a deal under President Clinton, but President Bush backed away from that, in part because North Korea wasn't being honest about how much it had already cut back its nuclear program. And you led those Six Party Talks in the mid-2000s and negotiated some inspections as preliminary steps, but North Korea pulled out of the deal in 2009.
What has that taught you about what works and what doesn't with North Korea?
CH: Actually, to be more accurate, we pulled out of the deal in 2008, because in moving forward to the key phase of implementation, yes they agreed to shut down their nuclear reactor, which they did. They agreed to take certain steps to disable it, that is to make it very difficult to be brought online and in fact, they were never able to bring it online for about another six or seven years.
But ultimately, we couldn't go forward, because they would not give us any verification worthy of the name. That is, they allowed us to verify things that we already knew, but they wouldn't let us go and expect some site in the middle of nowhere about which we had some suspicions, because they said it wasn't on the original list. So this was not something we could continue with them, and for that reason, we had to back out of the talks. And then you correctly point out, in 2009, they simply abrogated all of the what had happened in the last four years.
We have a real problem getting back to talks and we have an extremely big problem getting back to talks on the basis of what was already agreed, that is on the basis of the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. So I think we need some effort to make the North Koreans understand that they will have a better future if they agree to give up those weapons than not, and clearly, Kim Jong-Un is by no means ready to do that.
RW: What would be the crack that you might be able to open and step through, diplomatically, then?
CH: I think first of all, I think these sanctions that China has begun to really implement. China has some 85%, even 90% of North Korean trade, so if China is really serious about shutting down that trade, and they've shut down, as of today, some of the main elements of it, I think that will get their attention.
RW: That's the entry point.
CH: But the history of getting countries to make concessions on the basis of sanctions is not very good. Countries don't like to be sanctioned. They tend to kind of roll up their sleeves and tighten their belt and say, "It doesn't matter. We're going to go forward anyway." I remember the Pakistan president back in the 1970s said, "Our people will eat grass than to give into this kind of pressure."
So we also need, I think, a China that understands our needs and a U.S. that understands China's needs, so that we can go in and maybe take some more direct action that is short of war. I'm not recommending war because there are 20 million South Koreans within range of North Korean artillery, but we need to look for ways to slow down that program, slow down North Korea's capability of moving forward, until some of these really biting sanctions take their effect.
RW: Am I hearing you suggest targeted military operations?
CH: I'm not saying targeted military. I would say cyber attack, which some people would argue is military, but often the flip of the fingerprints are hard to discern. I would say other efforts. Let me just say efforts aimed at slowing down their success. For example, North Korea has been able to get some equipment and some knowhow from other parts of the world. That absolutely must be shut down and there needs to be a better job of it.
You saw there was a major piece in the New York Times the other day about a factory in Ukraine. Well, if you consider all the things we've been trying to do for Ukraine, that factory should not be delivering missile parts to North Korea, and that's in fact what appears to have been happening.
RW: Right, the revelation was that relationship between the plant in Ukraine and the North Koreans. Just a bit more history to throw in here, North Korea withdrew from the Global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in '03 and it first announced that it would do that almost a decade before that. So we've known of the North's intentions to develop nuclear weapons for about 25 years, and it makes me wonder if in North Korea, when you were in the Six Party Talks, you have ever had a genuine negotiating partner or if you have always had in them stalling tactics?
CH: Well, there's been a little of both, but I must say the context of negotiating with them during the second Bush term was that there were a lot of people within the Bush administration who certainly contained their enthusiasm for any kind of negotiation.
RW: Such a diplomatic way to put it.
CH: Yes. At the time, when we were sitting down with the North Koreans and trying to figure out how much fuel oil we'll give them in order to shut down the reactor. Now fuel oil is not something that's going to change the world or change the North Korean economy, but it was a payment means that we got them to do what we wanted them to do. We had other people in the U.S. government looking to essentially take measures that would result to North Korea wanting to step out of the talks.
Now, there seems to be much more interest in getting into a negotiation. Certainly Secretary Tillerson has expressed that interest. The neoconservatives of the Bush administration who were already beginning to be kind of orphaned during that second term are completely orphaned now, because they don't have a role in the Trump administration. So I think there's a real willingness to talk to the North Koreans. The problem is the North Koreans have backed off their effort to cooperate. There was a level of cooperation especially in terms of bringing the inspectors in to see how they've shut down the reactor and the other facilities.
So I think we're in a better place in terms of our own organization. The problem is the North Koreans, under Kim Jong-un, have no interest. I think it's important really to analyze why is it that they are so desperate to have these nuclear weapons. They have not been cost-free. I mean apart from the direct cost of all these purchases from odd places like Ukraine, they've also had to live through a tremendous amount of isolation.
RW: Yeah. Let's talk about the motivations here on the Korean Peninsula for wanting to be a nuclear North Korea, what the intentions are there. Let me say that you're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and we're speaking with Ambassador Christopher Hill who now leads the School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and who was a part of the Six Party Talks to denuclearize North Korea during the George W. Bush administration.
You wrote recently about what is motivating the North to develop nuclear weapons. You said the standard reasoning is that the country has no real friends and wants to be able to defend itself from a bunch of more powerful nuclear armed countries, the U.S. included, but you don't think that's really it.
CH: That's correct.
RW: Yeah. What do you think is at the heart of this?
CH: I think this idea that they have no friends. They don't have any friends, but often people that don't have friends don't have friends for a reason, and I think the North Koreans have done very little to attract friends. But the notion that they just needed a couple of nuclear weapons to make them feel secure against a U.S. attack presumes that the U.S. is gearing up for a nuclear, for some kind of attack on the North Koreans.
In fact, that was the first thing we said we would not do in our six-party agreement that was reached in 2005. So I submit to you it's more than that. I think what they really have in mind is a strategy to decouple the U.S. from South Korea. Here's how that would work. In the North Korean mindset, the South Koreans would, like North Koreans, like a Korean Peninsula that's free of foreign interference.
If you go back a couple of thousand years, you can see that Koreans have often had foreign interference on their peninsula and so they would all like to get the foreigners out. So the North Koreans presume that mindset is in South Korea. And by the way, there are some South Koreans who feel that way, but certainly by no means a majority.
The idea is North Korea gets into a spat with the South Korean forces, and then the U.S. says, "Okay, we're in, because it's our treaty, our alliance responsibility to be in," and the North Koreans say to us, "Not so fast, because if you join in this, we will hit you with a nuclear weapon." Of course our answer is, "Hey, if you hit us, we'll flatten you." The North Koreans respond, "Well, game on."
So there's a real problem there. If a U.S. president, any president, says, "Well, you know, maybe the South Koreans can handle this themselves," and by the way they probably can, "maybe the South Koreans can handle this themselves, so we don't need to put our troops into the fight there," that would be a situation where it would call into question U.S. alliance commitments not only in the Korean peninsula, but elsewhere in the world.
So I think we need to understand that our word could very much be at stake here, and if we are in a position where we get involved and we have to face the possibility of a nuclear strike against our own civilian populations, that's a tough call for any president. So I think the North Koreans' approach on this is much more consequential and much more serious than the idea of some plucky little country that, alas, doesn't have any good friends and therefore needs a couple of nukes.
RW: So you think the North Korean eyes are on the big peninsular picture, if you will, and that this could potentially test that commitment the US has made to South Korea.
What do you make of the president's, you've talked so far about others in his administration, Rex Tillerson, for instance, thinking that there could be a diplomatic route here, but what do you make of the president's talk about "fire and fury" and "locked and loaded"? Let me say that it appears the North Koreans are backing off this idea of attacking Guam, so is that kind of talk working?
CH: I would say no, and I understand why Americans value the notion that our leaders will say what they mean and mean what they say and this sort of thing, but I think overall using terms like "fire and fury," it looks like it was written by a North Korean. And I think it kind of reduces us to their level, and more importantly, gives the Chinese, who are always looking for a way out, to say, "Hey, you kids, including the US, you need to calm this all down." And so I'm not sure it's all that helpful.
I think much more helpful would be the president saying, "We will always stand by our South Korean and Japanese allies. We will be there for them. We're in together," things like that. And also make clear that we're not going to walk away from this nuclear problem. We are going to be very much engaged with it until it's resolved.
But to use that kind of colorful language, I think kind of makes us look like a sort of giant North Korea, and I don't think it's helpful to our interests, and more importantly, it's really worried a lot of South Koreans, who don't want to hear this kind of language from us, and I think called into question how serious we are in the rest of the world as well.
RW: Very briefly, you've had the long view on this, Ambassador Hill. What's your level of fear of a nuclear attack with the North Koreans? Is it higher than it's ever been? Place it into some context, just briefly.
C. Hill: I am not concerned about a nuclear attack by the North Koreans. Certainly there is a possibility of miscalculation. I'm not just putting this off as some kind of farce or some kind of unintended comedy, but I do believe that overall, first of all, we have the world's finest military and we can protect ourselves against any North Korean threat. I'm very convinced of that. Moreover, the North Koreans are not as crazy as some people think they are, and I think they understand the consequence of getting into some kind of exchange with us. So I think what we get is a lot of bluster, but what I'm worried about is sometimes the bluster is taken for reality, and we could make some very bad miscalculations on the Korean peninsula.
RW: Well, here's what former Defense Secretary and North Korea envoy William Perry told The New York Times last week about the prospect of war right now. I'll say that he served under President Clinton.
William Perry: We're not dealing with Al Qaeda. They're not seeking martyrdom. So they're not suicidal. They're not going to conduct a surprise attack, a pre-emptive attack with the nuclear weapons on Washington, on San Francisco, on Tokyo, on Seoul, because they know if they do that, they will be toast. So deterrence does work with them. You might say that neither side is going to deliberately start a nuclear war, but the dangerous situation today is that we have created an environment and we could, in which we would drift into some kind of conventional war, which could then escalate as I've said before. So the danger is that we would blunder into nuclear war, a war which neither North Korea nor the United States wants. In a sense, we're sleepwalking into a war, and I think that's a dangerous situation.
RW: We have about thirty seconds, Ambassador. What do you think about bumbling into a war?
CH: I think the concern, as I mentioned earlier, but I have the deepest respect for Secretary Perry, I think the concern is this kind of blundering into a war by making bellicose statements, feeling you have to back up the statement, that that somehow becomes more important than doing the prudent thing, and before you know it, you're in some kind of mess.
But overall, I would agree that we have a situation where North Korea would not want to take us on. That said, if they are allowed to get away with nuclear weapons, and if they do as they do, which is to threaten everyone with a nuclear strike if that country hasn't sent them a Mother's Day greeting or something, I think it's a real problem, and I think we have to be utterly vigilant and ultimately successful.
RW: That is Ambassador Christopher Hill, who now leads the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at DU, and he was lead US negotiator with North Korea from 2005 to 2009, and visited Pyongyang in 2007.
So all the talk lately of nuclear war, however remote the chance is, got us wondering about fallout shelters created during the Cold War. A thousand buildings in Denver were chosen in the 1960s to serve as shelters in the event of a nuclear conflict, says Ryan Broughton. He leads the city's Office of Emergency Management.
Ryan Broughton: The records that we have here at the city and county show that they were maintained fully stocked from approximately 1962 till 1973.
RW: They were stocked with medical supplies, food and water, even radiation detectors. These shelters were in both public and private buildings, and officially, these shelters have been decommissioned. But, says Broughton.
RB: If they still have fallout shelter sign on the exterior, it does mean that it, at least as of the '70s, it was rated to provide better protection than being outside. However, it is important to note that none of those are still stocked and ready, so it's a "bring your own emergency bag."
RW: But don't pack it just for doomsday, Broughton says. It's far more likely you'll be hit by severe weather or a prolonged power outage. Now, if you're wondering where a viable leftover shelter is, the city can't say. The sites are written down on a bunch of old yellowing note cards.
RB: I donít have a full list. I'm literally talking about an index card. So for example, the City and County Building, 1437 Bannock, 9710 spots that were stocked, June of 1965. Last checked and verified 9-18-73.
RW: You can see these index cards and pictures of some of the buildings designated as fallout shelters at CPRnews.org. [playing Duck and Cover song] This is Colorado Matters.