The Incidental Tourist Visits North Korea

U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill meets North Korean diplomat  Li Gun in Pyongyang.
U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill meets North Korean diplomat Li Gun in Pyongyang. (By Xia Yu -- Xinhua Via Associated Press)
By Al Kamen
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Seems that everywhere U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill goes these days, the North Koreans are never far away. Suspicious types think this is no accident.

In January, for example, Hill was giving a speech at the American Academy in Berlin, a cultural exchange center, and, wouldn't you know it, there was North Korea's lead negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan.

The North Koreans had requested a meeting in Geneva -- Washington said no, since that was where the original Clinton-era "Agreed Framework" was hammered out, and it wouldn't look good. The North Koreans didn't want Beijing or the United Nations, we hear, so Berlin was agreed upon.

But Hill needed plausible cover should the media spot him in Germany. He called his old boss, former U.N. ambassador and Bosnian peace deal negotiator Richard Holbrooke, and mentioned he'd be going to Berlin.

Holbrooke suggested Hill might give a speech at the Academy, which Holbrooke chairs. Nothing fancy, just remarks and Q&A. Hill said that would be great. The January meeting paved the way for a North Korean agreement in February to shut down its nuclear reactor in exchange for aid.

But a flap over North Korean money laundering through a bank in Macau tied up $25 million of Kim Jong Il's walking-around money and derailed progress. Then it appeared the money problem would be resolved early last week.

Next thing you know, there's Hill in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, two weekends ago attending the annual meeting of the Asia Society, which is chaired by -- but, of course -- Holbrooke.

Hill hadn't attended in three prior years, and would have preferred wandering on the Beijing-Tokyo-Seoul circuit. But going to this one at least kept him in the neighborhood just when the Macau problem happened to disappear and North Korea invited the International Atomic Energy Agency in to monitor its nuclear program.

Well, it would surely be downright rude not to drop in on the North Koreans on the way home -- marking the first time a senior U.S. official had visited in 4 1/2 years.

And this time, contrary to normal procedure, no one from the Pentagon or the National Security Council went with Hill. They are seen as much more hard-line -- or more realistic, they would say -- than State. Well, they won't miss the next Asia Society meeting.

The IAEA, those blind chaps who somehow couldn't find Saddam Hussein's massive WMD stockpiles before the war, arrived in Pyongyang yesterday.

Maybe It's the Chemicals

Speaking of Hussein, news from Baghdad this week is that his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, better known as "Chemical Ali" for his poison gas attacks against Kurdish civilians, has received five death sentences. Wait a minute? Chemical Ali's still alive? Didn't U.S. troops kill this guy long ago? Well, yes, they did, many times. The first time was in the opening salvo of the war, on March 19, 2003. Navy planes then killed him on March 23. But they hit the wrong house. Marine planes then hit the right one that same day. "We think he's no longer breathing air," one officer said.

Well, he was breathing something, it appears, because CNN reported April 7 that, according to a British military spokesman, Majeed's body had been found in another location.

Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, "We believe that the reign of terror of Chemical Ali has come to an end." Not "death throes," but toast.

Later that day, though, a Marine spokesman said he would not speculate and would await DNA tests. "The guy has been like Freddy Krueger," he said. "We've killed him five times already."

U.S. troops finally tracked him down and captured him in August 2003. He's got one appeal from the hangman sentence, but this may be one noose he won't slip.

Don't Beat 'Em; Block 'Em

Nifty Campaign Idea of the Month award: June's winner is former senator and not-yet-candidate Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who advocated a blockade against Iran before taking military action to stop its nuclear plans.

"A blockade would be a possibility if we get the international cooperation," Thompson said in a foreign policy speech in London, Bloomberg News reported. It was unclear whether this blockade -- which some, especially the Iranians, might consider an act of war -- would cover Iran's lengthy land borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

But the notion would quickly get enthusiastic backing from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela and other oil-producing friends.

Catching Up . . .

There's still an opening for the job of ambassador to the Organization of American States, a post vacant since December. Former congressman Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.), who lost his redistricted House race in November and was nominated March 15, withdrew this month to join a lobbying firm.

Some of those mentioned for the job include: Deborah L. DeMoss, who had been a top aide for Latin America to then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) for more than a decade, then almost first lady of Honduras as wife of onetime presidential candidate Hector Rene Fonseca and now a mother of five working for Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief organization; Hector Morales Jr., U.S. Executive Director to the Inter-American Development Bank; Charles S. Shapiro, top State Department Latin America hand and former ambassador to Venezuela; and Carl Meacham, aide to Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Did I Say That?

"Having Fun Yet?" is the subject line of an e-mail fundraiser sent yesterday by Bill Clinton for his wife's presidential campaign.

"I hope you enjoyed the Sopranos spoof Hillary and I did last week," the former president wrote. "Campaigns should be fun, but they are also serious business -- especially now," he continued.

Course, some people get in trouble when they try to have too much fun.


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