The miseducation of Christopher Hill
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images Think your job sucks? Try walking a mile in the shoes of Christopher Hill, who has been the U.S. envoy to the six-party talks since February 2005. For more than three years, Hill has been trying to convince North Korea to shut down its nuclear program and come clean about its ...
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Think your job sucks? Try walking a mile in the shoes of Christopher Hill, who has been the U.S. envoy to the six-party talks since February 2005. For more than three years, Hill has been trying to convince North Korea to shut down its nuclear program and come clean about its nuclear activities.
He’s had some success at the former, with the North Koreans agreeing to the dismantling of their plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. But Kim Jong Il’s irascible regime has been notoriously coy about acknowledging just what it’s been up to on the uranium and proliferation fronts. So, Hill negotiated a delicate workaround: North Korea would acknowledge U.S. concerns but admit to nothing. Then, the United States would remove North Korea from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that has all kinds of other legal and financial ramifications. On balance, it seemed like a good idea to at least mothball Yongbyon and learn as much as possible about the nuclear program. Why let the perfect become the enemy of the good? And on a factual level, North Korea hasn’t actually sponsored terrorism since 1987.
But now, Hill’s careful game of diplomatic Jenga may be coming apart. For months, North Korea has stalled, appearing to want to wait for a better deal from the next president. Last week’s allegations about North Korea’s nuclear cooperation with Syria appear to have only inflamed building congressional anger against the deal. And it’s not just Republicans who were upset. Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously to require that the White House certify it has gotten a “complete and correct declaration” from Pyongyang. Hill’s plan was, to be frank, to fudge it.
One congressional staffer told the Financial Times the White House would go “ballistic” over the committee’s move, but the Bush administration still has a chance to convince the full House and the Senate to scuttle it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed, however, that the White House has let Chris Hill run point on these negotiations for a reason. If things fall apart — as it seems they might — he can be hung out to dry and blamed for the failure. That would be a shame, because Hill is a real star of the diplomatic corps and somebody America needs to keep around.
Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
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