Just as Washington seems to have almost forgotten the name of the current president, hardly anyone still remembers Chris Hill, a media hero for one brief while after he conned George W. Bush out of one part of the “cowboy diplomacy” they loved to loathe. Also mostly forgotten: for the brief interlude when it was tried, the cowboy diplomacy worked. Less so: what replaced it did not.
Hill is now about to round up the six various parties for one last great charade, where the North looks likely to renounce any agreement to allow meaningful verification.
The American assistant secretary of State, Christopher R. Hill, will use the Beijing talks, scheduled to begin on Monday, to try to persuade North Korea to allow outside experts to take nuclear waste samples for testing, a key procedure in determining the reclusive country’s past nuclear activities.
Mr. Hill held preliminary talks with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, in Singapore last week and later said he expected the Beijing conference to be “difficult. On Sunday, Kim Sook, the South Korean envoy to the six-nation talks, said: “I am not very optimistic.
In its final weeks in power, the Bush administration is struggling to complete the so-called “second phase” toward Washington’s ultimate goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. [NYT, Choe Sang Hun]
The Times report includes this neat little epitaph for whatever it was that Chris Hill wasted the last two years of Bush’s presidency doing:
Since he became Washington’s front man on North Korea in 2005, Mr. Hill has cobbled together key agreements with North Korea, including the September 2005 deal that laid out a road map toward the North’s nuclear disarmament. But he has stumbled over Pyongyang’s tactic of giving vague commitments to win American concessions and then retracting them, saying nothing was written down.
The latest case in point involved the dispute over nuclear samples. In October, Washington announced that the North agreed to allow sampling, and removed the North from the terror list. But a month later, the North said it had never given such a promise and Washington had no written document to prove otherwise.
Off the record, U.S. officials will tell you that North Korea most definitely did agree to allow sampling at the agreed sites at Yongbyon, but then reneged on that commitment. The North Koreans know Bush lacks the will to use what power he has left. They’re already calibrating their concession-seeking strategy for the next administration.
Just for extra drama, the North will also try to exclude Japan from the next session of the talks. Japan, understandably, won’t contribute Yen One to the North Korean fuel oil fund until its abducted citizens are returned. Bush’s de-listing of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism — despite North Korea’s refusal to even seriously discuss returning the abductees — has done grave damage to U.S.-Japanese relations. The Times report that the United States is now approaching Australia and New Zealand to kick in Japan’s share of the contribution. Such a strategy is sure to worsen matters by creating the perception that America is going about Japan, reducing its bargaining power regarding a vital national interest, and abandoning Japanese hostages to the whim of their captors.
It’s exceedingly difficult to see what benefit we have gained to justify the alienation of our most important ally in Asia.