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."

The normally loquacious Hill declined to comment for this article, as did Rice. But when asked in a podcast last month about his dealings with "Cheneyland," he acknowledged the strain and marveled at the emotions North Korea provokes in the capital.

"I have never seen people around tables in Washington get so angry about this subject," Hill told Christopher Lydon, a fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute, in the podcast on April 25. "I understand why people get emotional about this. But my job is to try to stay on task here. . . . If giving speeches in Washington would solve this, we'd just stay in Washington and give speeches."

Hill added: "I've got to tell you, I don't feel abandoned by Secretary Rice and President Bush. They have been big supporters."

Rice speaks to Hill as many as seven times a day while he is negotiating, to keep close tabs on the precise language in draft documents. But Hill also has sometimes taken procedural shortcuts to leave his internal opponents out of the loop. And he has rebuilt his initial negotiating team, weeding out potential spies for his rivals by replacing them with a tightknit group of technical experts.

A Dealmaker at Heart

Hill has a wry sense of humor and a blunt, informal style that officials say appeals to Bush. He has spent three decades in the Foreign Service, and he caught Bush's eye when the Polish president, a favorite of Bush's, lavishly praised Hill's performance as ambassador to Poland. Later, as ambassador to South Korea, he eased tensions in U.S.-Korean relations through frequent speeches and debates with U.S. critics.

But Hill is at heart a dealmaker. During the Clinton administration, he was a key negotiator for the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the Bosnian war, and played an important role in dealing with the Kosovo crisis. His mentor in both jobs was former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who taught him how to handle the media and push the bounds of his official negotiating instructions to get a deal.

Cha noted that Hill became the chief negotiator for the complex North Korea dispute without much background or even interest in the subject, meaning he did not carry baggage from previous policy battles. "There was a real freshness in his view," Cha said. "He isn't Chris Evert, preparing meticulously for the next match. He is more like John McEnroe. He doesn't practice, but he is extremely talented and so he still wins."

Hill pressed Rice for permission to travel to Pyongyang as soon as he was tapped for the job in 2005, officials said, but she resisted. At the time, the Bush administration had strict limits on U.S. meetings with North Korean officials, frequently insisting they could occur only in the presence of a third party, such as the Chinese.

In July 2005, for example, the two sides agreed that negotiations would be reopened if Hill had dinner with his North Korean and Chinese counterparts in Beijing. When the Chinese did not show up, Hill went ahead with the meal regardless -- technically a violation of his instructions. An annoyed Rice complained later to the Chinese foreign minister, but Hill got his wish: The talks were restarted.

"I am not a freelancer. I am not a free agent," Hill said on the Brown University podcast. "When I go and talk to any of these people . . . I do it with a set of instructions. I don't come up with stuff on my own and claim it is U.S. policy. At the end of the day, we have what we have and I phone it in and then we see what the president decides."

But Cha and others say Hill has little use for formalities and sometimes neglects to clear things with other agencies. He perfected the technique of traveling to the region -- last year, for example, he went to the Pacific Island Forum in Tonga -- and of calling Rice to report a sudden opportunity to meet the North Koreans. Rice typically would just check with Hadley or Bush before approving.

'Cease and Desist'

An early setback occurred in 2005, when Hill struck a deal that went sour. For much of the next year, he struggled to rekindle the process, pressing to ease a U.S. crackdown on North Korean counterfeiting, according to U.S. officials. His luck changed after North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb in October 2006, when Bush decided to test whether a serious negotiating push would yield results.

To the dismay of conservatives, U.S. pressure on North Korea was suddenly eased, and Hill achieved a quick series of agreements -- and even began to travel repeatedly to Pyongyang. "We were told to cease and desist" all efforts to punish North Korea for its nuclear test, said Carolyn Leddy, a nuclear specialist at the National Security Council who left the White House late last year. "It was not a negotiation anymore. There were no more sticks."

But Hill so far has fought off his critics, partly by raising the possibility that the North Korean government might agree to a televised destruction of its nuclear facility's cooling tower.

In perhaps his biggest coup, Hill convinced Rice and Bush that the top priority is to get ahold of North Korea's stash of plutonium, and that other issues are secondary. In Bush's first term, the administration had accused North Korea of having an uranium-enrichment program, which led to the breakdown of a 1994 agreement that kept Pyongyang from separating plutonium to make nuclear warheads.

The uranium-enrichment issue has faded in importance because the original intelligence was overstated. In changing gears, the president has acknowledged that his previous approach was a mistake.

Leddy said that last fall, when China first proposed separating the plutonium issue from other concerns in North Korea's nuclear declaration, she saw a White House document describing the idea with the notation "President says No." But that is precisely the deal Hill struck last month.

An agreement with North Korea is "like the proverbial fifth marriage -- a triumph of hope over experience," Hill said in the podcast. "I certainly anticipate a lot of critics. But usually when I ask the critics 'Okay, what would you do?' . . . they usually change the subject. You always end up with people coming back to the idea you have got to sit down and negotiate."

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