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Ex-U.S. Ambassador to South Korea says more work with China needed amid 'serious crisis' over nukes

Posted at 4:58 PM, Sep 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-05 00:30:30-04

DENVER – The former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, who also led the American delegation to previous talks over North Korea’s nuclear program, says there is “a serious crisis” brewing following North Korea’s latest nuclear test, and that the U.S. and China need to start working together more to stave off anything worse.

Christopher Hill, who was the ambassador to South Korea from 2004-05 and served as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2005 to 2009, also led the American delegation to the “Six Party Talks” in the 4th, 5th, and 6th rounds of the talks between the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

The Six Party Talks started in August 2003 and ended with the last phase of the 6th round of talks in September 2007.

They were aimed at bringing together regional leaders and the U.S. in order to find a resolution to North Korea’s nuclear proliferation after the reclusive nation pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.

Hill, who is now the Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, sat down with Denver7 Monday to discuss the latest test and what the U.S. should do moving forward.

He said that tensions are high right now, and that all parties involved in the international conflict should tread carefully.

“My greatest concern, really, is miscalculation—because the North Koreans have been at this business of creating nuclear force for decades,” Hill said. “This is not about Donald Trump. This is not about Barack Obama. This goes back decades. So I think we should stop thinking it’s about us, when really it’s about them.”

“The concern is this administration—I think any administration—in this position would be kind of issuing some very strong statements, and the concern is we could miscalculate our way into some kind of conflict,” he continued.

On Sunday, President Donald Trump responded to North Korea’s latest test by putting more pressure on South Korea while allaying some on China. The two nations are crucial in managing North Korean relations.

Trump said that North Korea “has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.”

He also said shortly afterward that, “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work.”

But Hill said that wasn’t quite the case—telling Denver7 that while South Korea faces the most risk from North Korean proliferation, it would have to be on China to make the first and most-drastic moves to get North Korea to stand down.

“I think a key issue is whether we can come to terms with China on a really serious in-depth approach,” Hill said. “There is a lot of mistrust of the United States there (in China). Just as there’s a lot of mistrust of China here. But we really need to kind of figure out what it is we want to see happen as a result of this situation.”

But he added that there is certainly distrust of the North Koreans by the Chinese.

“Among the Chinese public, I think there’s a great deal of frustration with North Korea, and I think China is quite sincere when they say, ‘We don’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons,’” Hill said. “I think that is a fact. The question is what are they prepared to do to prevent it.”

Hill says he believes that Kim is “much more” intent on having usable nuclear weapons than his late father, who also had a penchant for prodding the region with nuclear proliferation.

“He’s not interested in what we (the U.S.) say, what the Chinese say—certainly not interested in what the United Nations says. So we’re dealing with someone who basically has his mind made up,” Hill said. “So he needs to understand that his pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to his demise. And in order to convince him of that, we need to convince the Chinese that that’s the way to go about it.”

But Hill told Denver7 that he believes China might be wary of possibly relinquishing any power in the region to the U.S. either directly or by proxy via South Korea—something he says the Chinese might think is a possibility if North Korea were to come undone.

“Then then Chinese worry whether we would have the strategic advantage of that. Then, overall, there’s a view in China that somehow this could be perceived by the Chinese public as victory for America and a defeat for China,” Hill said. “And they’re very worried about that type of situation because they have a lot of concerns about where they stand with their own people.”

And Hill said that he thinks China will try and use whatever leverage it can to achieve a better outcome than the U.S. in any possible negotiations or conflict.

“I think what they’re trying to do with this is not protect themselves so much as see if they can get the U.S. to blink and essentially diminish its role in northeast Asia, and specifically to decouple itself from South Korea,” Hill said. “I think that would be a very dangerous move not only for northeast Asia, but frankly for the world. And I think the U.S. needs to be very firm about this.”

One of the possible solutions President Trump has floated is a full trade embargo with any country that engages in trade with North Korea.

“The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea,” Trump tweeted Sunday.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity, re-upped his calls for a full economic embargo on North Korea and any businesses or nations that do business with North Korea. He has introduced similar legislation that would bar any U.S. market access from anyone doing business with North Korea.

“These economic tools need to be combined with robust military deterrent, including imposing a US-led international naval blockade of North Korea in order to ensure a full enforcement of United Nations actions,” Gardner said in a statement. “We must also continue frequent show of force exercises by the United States and our partners in Seoul and Tokyo, enhanced missile defense activities, and assurance of extended US nuclear deterrence to our allies. Kim Jong Un must know that any serious provocation will be met with a full range of US military capabilities."

But under the plan Trump has floated, that would mean cutting U.S.-China trade, which would have drastic ramifications on the U.S. market.

In 2015, China imported 83 percent of all of North Korean exports, and exports from China account for 85 percent of North Korea’s imports, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And the U.S. had a $365 billion trade deficit with China after 2015 after China sent 18 percent of its exports to the U.S.

So, Hill says, he believes that more diplomacy is needed to curb North Korea’s breakneck pace as of late in accelerating its nuclear program.

“I think what needs to happen next is probably fewer tweets and more consultations with China, and I think we really need an in-depth consultation with China,” Hill said. “We need to understand what they want to see out of this and what we want to see out of this. I think we’ve just kind of scratched the surface, and I think these episodic visits to China or episodic phone calls or even tweets are not getting the job done.”

Hill posed sending an ambassador of sorts “to spend a lot of time with the Chinese” to try and get a deal done.

Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was confirmed as the new U.S. Ambassador to China in May, and the acting ambassador resigned over Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord two weeks later.

But the U.S. has no current ambassador to South Korea. Last week, the Telegraph (UK) reported that Trump was set to appoint Victor Cha, the former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, as the new ambassador. He would still have to be confirmed by the Senate once he’s appointed.

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was “begging for war” by conducting another nuclear test over the weekend, and the White House agreed with South Korea that South Korea could lift missile payload restrictions in response to the latest test.

And Hill maintained that the U.S. needed someone on the ground actively working with China to get something done.

“We need to understand that we need to work together with China, so it’s a huge, huge undertaking,” Hill said. “There’s a mountain of mistrust between the U.S. and China and we need to address some of that.”