Mid-Level Official Steered U.S. Shift On North Korea

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

Early in President Bush's second term, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convened a series of strategy sessions on how to persuade North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons programs. One key official, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, remained largely silent, four participants said, except to pipe up periodically with the same refrain.

"If you just let me go to Pyongyang, I'll get you a deal," the career Foreign Service officer said, prompting others to roll their eyes and move on.

In the twilight of the Bush presidency, the nuclear agreement that Hill has tirelessly pursued over the past three years has emerged as Bush's best hope for a lasting foreign policy success. In the process, Hill has become the public face of an extraordinary 180-degree policy shift on North Korea, from confrontation to accommodation.

With crucial support from Rice, Hill has often triumphed over his bureaucratic rivals, making him a lightning rod for conservative critics. They caustically call him "Kim Jong Hill" -- a play on the name of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- and assert that he made concession after concession in a desperate effort to keep the talks from collapsing.

No assistant secretary of state can so dramatically change policy without the full backing of the secretary or the president. But for a mid-level official, Hill has had unusual access to the president, often joining breakfast meetings that include Rice, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. He has even had an occasional one-on-one chat with Bush.

Through deft use of public appearances and the news media, Hill also has become an international figure in his own right. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last year hailed him as a "diplomat par excellence" whose "persistence and skillful negotiation have brought us close, I believe, to resolving this last legacy of the Cold War." Along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Aga Khan, Hill is even a finalist for Britain's prestigious Chatham House Prize -- given to the statesman who has had the greatest impact on international relations -- for keeping the North Korean "talks alive and viable, against seemingly impossible odds," including the "complex internal politics of Washington."

Under the agreements Hill has reached, Pyongyang has shut down its nuclear reactor, disabled key facilities and provided thousands of pages of records meant to verify the size of its stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. Hill is traveling to Asia this week to prod North Korea to fully declare its nuclear programs. But the United States has backed off an earlier demand for detailed information about North Korean uranium enrichment or assistance to a clandestine Syrian reactor -- and is poised to remove key sanctions against North Korea.

The most important test is still to come: whether North Korea will ultimately agree to give up its plutonium stockpile and forswear using it to make additional nuclear weapons.

One of the biggest guessing games in diplomatic circles today is how long Hill can keep up his balancing act of pleasing his bosses, negotiating with North Korea and fending off conservatives eager to see him fail. Even now, he and his tactics are viewed with suspicion by many top administration officials, who have clipped his wings at times.

Hill, for instance, was largely responsible for arranging the unprecedented visit to Pyongyang this year by the New York Philharmonic, even lobbying reluctant musicians to make the trip over a pizza lunch in the chorus rehearsal room last fall. "It was a spectacular thing to witness. He was direct and honest, and . . . changed a lot of minds that day," said Eric Latzky, spokesman for the orchestra.

But Rice ordered him not to attend the news conference announcing the trip after administration officials realized he would share the stage with a North Korean envoy.

"On the one hand, he is an effective negotiator," said Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, who was Hill's deputy at the nuclear talks in 2006. "But you can also view him as a media hog trying to be a hero."

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