Remarks on The Six-Party Peace Talks

Embassador Christopher R. Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs

New York
October 11, 2005


Well, thank you very much, Vishakha. It’s a transition in my life, and it did start here at the Asia Society in December of last year. It truly is great to see you all here tonight, and to talk about a subject that’s obviously dear to my heart.

In the last two weeks in Washington we’ve had the Festival of China. As many of you know, there were fireworks at the Kennedy Center, which caused a lot of people to be calling the police station, and it’s really quite an extraordinary event. The Kennedy Center put on quite a festival, but I could only keep in mind that I’d just had the Festival of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing, which were just a couple of weeks before. We too had fireworks, and we too had people balancing six delegations on their heads and that sort of thing. It was truly an experience that only I and my therapist know for sure.

But I do look forward in the rest of my life to getting on with, not only my life but what’s going on in Asia. I truly believe that Asia is the most dynamic part of the world today. We’ve talked in the United States for some three centuries about “the century of Asia,” and I do believe that it is upon us now. But before we can really get on with the century of Asia, we have to do something about this mid-20 th century, or mid-Cold War museum piece known as the division of the Korean Peninsula.

It is an issue that has truly bedeviled American and other policy-makers ever since it happened in a very surprising manner in 1945, with the U.S. taking the surrender of Japanese troops south of the 38 th Parallel and the Soviet troops taking surrender of the Japanese troops north of the 38 th Parallel. No one knew that this would continue for some 60 years. As difficult as the Korean Peninsula has been, it has become even more difficult in the recent two decades with North Korea’s decision to essentially build a nuclear energy program which has yet to produce a kilowatt of nuclear power but has produced many kilos of plutonium metal which is the precursor for nuclear weapons.

Clearly this is a problem that has to be addressed. It’s still opaque to us why North Korea has developed these weapons. They’re weapons obviously serve no useful purpose to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They do not enhance its security, and indeed if you took the top 1000 problems that North Korea faces today, you would not find nuclear weapons among the solutions. Nuclear weapons are clearly a problem in North Korea. They’ve probably done more damage to the North Korean economy than they could do anywhere else. They’ve helped isolate North Korea, and kept it from any chance of developing its social, political and economic infrastructure.

Indeed, nuclear weapons programs for North Korea are like the person who finds something from Greek mythology on a mountainside and believes it will be his great blessing, and in fact it turns out to be his great curse. That is really what nuclear weapons have done. We need to figure out a way to solve this, and to do it through peaceful diplomatic means. That’s not to say diplomacy is the only way, but that is absolutely the best way to solve it. The U.S. has embarked on several efforts in the past, most notably the Agreed Framework which was undertaken in 1994. It was a framework by which it was agreed that North Korea would receive a couple of light-water reactors. From the time of the Agreed Framework, North Korea would agree to freeze its nuclear programs, and then once the light-water reactors were built, North Korea would then agree to dismantle its graphite-moderated reactors—that is, reactors that are much more susceptible to misuse to build to nuclear weapons.

Alas, the program never worked. In the meantime, it was discovered that North Korea had a program for making purchases of equipment that is absolutely consistent and indeed synonymous with the building of an enhanced uranium program. So the U.S., and specifically the Bush administration, decided that it would call North Korea on this. It pointed out that by this program North Korea would be violating the Agreed Framework. At that point, North Korea pulled out of the IAEA, kicked out that group’s inspectors, and within a matter of weeks was producing plutonium— such that North Korea now has, depending on which intelligence estimate you read, several bombs’ worth of plutonium. Clearly, something has to be done on this.

Because of the failure of these U.S.-North Korea agreements, the Bush administration decided it was time to come up with a multilateral process. After all, the issue of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula is not just a problem for the United States. It’s certainly a problem for North Korea and its neighbors. So the administration worked very hard to put together a group of countries directly affected by this, and that group comprised the Six-Party Talks. There was a certain irony here because the Bush administration is often accused of not supporting multilateral diplomacy. Yet here, multilateral diplomacy was absolutely necessary because we needed to bring different countries with the same interests to bear on the problem.

The Six-Party Talks got underway. For a couple of years, things really didn’t move very quickly. The North Koreans were very interested in having a bilateral process with the United States, and did not really take seriously the idea that there were four other countries—Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea—in the mix. It was not really until this past July that North Korea really agreed to come to the table and begin to talk seriously about the issues. That was the fourth session of the Six-Party Talks, following three rather perfunctory earlier sessions. At this fourth session, we did not sit down with the idea of solving the whole problem, because we realized this was not a problem solvable in one session. We decided to try to identify certain principles that all sides could agree on and would act as a signpost toward implementing this.

The first principle, absolutely essential to most of us, was that North Korea needed to get out of this business of producing nuclear weapons. North Korea was not really able to describe its nuclear program as one dedicated to nuclear energy or the production of electricity. As I said earlier, not a single kilowatt of electricity has been produced by their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. So in fact, the issue became, can North Korea agree to give up all its nuclear weapons and programs, thus to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty which it had withdrawn from in order to begin reprocessing plutonium in 2002.

We worked throughout the thirteen days and nights of these talks to come up with what is only a two-and-a-half-page paper. The paper’s first point is the principle of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula must be upheld, and that in that regard North Korea will agree to abandon all of its existing nuclear weapons and programs, get back into the NPT, and observe IAEA safeguards. North Korea finally agreed to do this after thirteen days and nights in July and August, followed by a 38-day recess and another six days and nights of talks in Beijing. It was obviously a difficult step for them, but they agreed to it because I think they ultimately understood there was really no other way than to first give up its nuclear weapons.

The problem arose in the second session after we came back, when North Korea raised the issue raised in the Agreed Framework, which was that they wanted other nuclear reactors to replace those. We made it very clear we would not have a discussion about providing peaceful use of nuclear energy to North Korea until it had done a few things—until it had gotten rid of its weapons and programs, and into the NPT and the IAEA. This was really a sticking point early on in the second part of the fourth round, where North Korea clearly was not going to agree to the disbanding of its weapons and programs until it had a light-water reactor.

They finally understood they would have to agree to the basic terms, and that we would not talk about a light-water reactor until the appropriate time, which was defined by all five countries as the time when North Korea was back in the IAEA. But as you all know, within just 24 hours—I’d hardly gotten back to Washington—a DPRK spokesman announced in Pyongyang that of course they would not disband their weapons and programs until they had gotten a light-water reactor. I think a lot of people saw that as a sign that not a lot had been accomplished. But I do believe that a lot was accomplished, and I believe the North Koreans know precisely what they agreed to.

Despite these public statements, we go into the next round in November with a sense of optimism that the North Koreans understand the drill. They’re going to have to disband their nuclear programs, and in return the other five nations will do a number of things. For example, in the Agreed Framework, North Korea was to receive 2000 megawatts of nuclear power via these light-water reactors. Under the six-party program, they will get 2000 megawatts, but it will be conventional power through lines strung over from South Korea.

They will get desperately needed electricity— North Korea is one of the most poorly-lit countries in the world. They will get access to international financial institutions. They will get cross-recognition, including recognition from Japan and the U.S. subject to bilateral issues, and I can talk more about those in the future. They will get real effort in looking at their overall energy programs, and once they are back in the NPT and within IAEA safeguards, they will also get a discussion about the possibility of us providing them a light-water reactor.

I think ultimately this deal is very much in North Korea’s interest, as well as the interests of all the parties that agreed to it. The question will be what mood the North Koreans bring when they come back in November. To be sure, we’ve got some enormous hurdles ahead of us. While we have an agreement on principles, we don’t yet have an agreement on how these principles will be implemented. We will face the sequencing issue. For example, should the U.S. have a discussion on establishing bilateral relations before the North Koreans have done away with their plutonium and had it taken out of the country? Should North Korea be removed from the terrorism list before or after they’ve come to agreement with Japan on the abductions issue? We have a lot of these sequencing problems to deal with.

It’s going to be a very difficult process to look at the issue of verification—the issue of verifying that North Korea has disbanded its nuclear programs. That will go to the question of the declaration North Korea makes. Will it be a complete declaration that covers its programs? Will they come clean on what they have done with regard to highly-enriched uranium (HEU)—the program they were engaged in in the late ‘90s and were called on in fall 2002 by the Bush administration?

President Musharraf of Pakistan was here in New York about six weeks ago, and he told the press that in fact North Korea has imported centrifuges from Pakistan. So the question is, what happened to those centrifuges. We know that they’ve imported some aluminum tubes. What has happened to them? It may be that the program was unsuccessful and that they never set up the centrifuges. You need many more than 13, so they would have to be doing a lot of reverse-engineering of those 13. Have they been able to put them together in a program? Or are these centrifuges just sitting in a warehouse somewhere? What’s happened to the aluminum tubes?

Our point is not to prove that the North Koreans have a program, and then to have them disband the program. Our point is to prove what they have done with this material. If they’ve used the aluminum tubes as a playground, just show us the playground and we’ll be satisfied with it. We need to know what has happened to these things. So there are going to be a lot of questions in the coming session.

I think it’s very important, though, that we keep this very fragile process going. I think it’s very important that we continue to talk to the North Koreans. I know that much has been made of the fact that the Bush administration did not talk to them, and now we appear to be talking to them. In fact, we are talking to them insofar as they’re a member of the six-party process, and we need to get our message to them directly. There are times when we can get our message through the Chinese, times when we can get our message through the South Koreans, and times when we need to speak directly to them. We will use all of those opportunities to get clear messages to them and to hear where they are coming from on this.

Ultimately, if, as I strongly believe, the North Koreans will get with this program and understand the value of this for their country—if they will make a clear declaration and not feel the process treats them as a defeated country but rather as a country with a role to play in the six-party process so we can get on with the economic program—it will be very much in North Korea’s interests. If they try to hold back, for example by hiding the purchases we know they’ve made from the Pakistanis for the HEU program, then we’re going to be in a real problem.

We’re not looking to confront them with everything all at once. The purpose here is to do away with nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula. We’re not looking to embarrass or humiliate them or anything else. We want to get at the problem of nuclear weapons. But I think we also want to use the six-party process, the first concrete effort at multilateral diplomacy in northeast Asia, to begin to address some of the other issues in that region. For example, the momentum that could be created by getting at North Korea’s nuclear programs could also be used to get at the question of the division of the Korean Peninsula.

That’s not to say we can somehow unite the Koreas any time soon. But certainly we can go from the armistice or elaborate cease-fire we have now in Korea, to an overall peace mechanism. The six-party process, by creating the right conditions and momentum, can work with its North and South Korean and Chinese allies to bring the Korean war to a formal end. We can also ensure that the inter-Korean dialogue, which has been so robust in the last few months, continues, and that North Korea can begin to experience some of the economic benefits that opening up the 38 th Parallel could bring to it.

Anyone who’s been on the 38 th Parallel in recent years is treated to this extraordinary sight of the world’s most militarized border being cut at one point by a road that looks a little like the New Jersey Turnpike. It goes right through the 38 th Parallel up to a place called Kaesong, where South Korean firms are very busily engaged in hiring North Korean workers and producing goods. This sort of thing could really be expanded. I think with this sort of program, the possibility of ending this terrible tragedy for the Korean people could really come into view.

I think, as we go forward in this, it’s very important for everyone to stay very calm about this. I know many of my Washington colleagues are concerned about how South Korea is handling its relationship with North Korea, because there have been so many changes in that relationship. But I think it’s very important for Americans to understand the extreme emotions of Koreans at having had this brutal border and division right across the spine of their country. I think very few countries have experienced having a division put there by foreigners, and remaining now for over half a century.

Anyone who’s been in Seoul would remember seeing, as I did in 1985 when I first went to Seoul, the faces of people hoping the Red Cross could reunite them with family members in the north. I remember these South Korean families gathering at one of the main hotels waiting for their North Korean family members to be bused down through the Red Cross. I remember the joy that people experienced at seeing family members they hadn’t seen for 60 years, and the anguish of those who were expecting family members to come who didn’t come. The issue of the division of the Korean Peninsula is a very live issue in that region. It’s very emotional, and I think those of us who work on it with traditional diplomatic and policy tools need to remember there’s a very strong human touch to this. We need to understand that better, and now is the time to work more closely than ever with South Korea.

I’m very pleased to say that I think the six-party process has done just that. I’m working very closely with the head of the South Korean delegation. They fielded a really excellent delegation for the six-party talks. The head of the delegation is the former Korean ambassador to Poland. In fact, I was the U.S. ambassador in Poland, and we often joke that we’re the Warsaw Pact at these six-party talks. It’s really been a very good relationship. But I think to people who look at Asia not just through the prism of the Korean Peninsula can also see something else happening in the six-party process, and that is the U.S. working together with China.

China is a country of 1.3 billion people, and our relationship is truly complex and of a kind I don’t think we have with any country in the world today. We need to find better ways to work with China, and I think we’re doing that through the six-party talks. We have a common objective in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. China has absolutely no interest in seeing nuclear weapons developed on the Korean Peninsula, and neither do we. I think we can work very closely with the Chinese, as we’re doing. China has also put together an extraordinarily good delegation there, and I think the six-party talks are a really bright spot for U.S.-China relations.

We’re also, I think, working very well with Japan, although that is less of a challenge, because we work very well with Japan across a range of issues worldwide. But Japan is also a very active member in the talks. The six-party talks I think provide a sort of embryonic regional security organization that we might be able to use more in the future as we move beyond the problem of nuclear weapons in North Korea. I think anyone who like me has served in Europe and then come to Asia can see the real difference in the number of multilateral organizations. In Europe, it’s excessive. But in Asia, I think there’s a real sense that more has to be done in multilateral diplomacy, and I think the six-party talks is a real opportunity.

Northeast Asia produces an extraordinary amount of the world’s products, and is one of its main exporting areas. But it’s not exporting the kind of stability that it should be, because there’s this hole in the heart of it that is North Korea. So we’ve got to get through this nuclear issue. It’s going to take time, and as I said to someone in Washington the other day, it’s not going to be pretty. It’s going to be a very, very difficult process. It’s very fragile right now, so we’re going to have some ups and downs. We’ll see how we do in November, but I expect it will continue through December and January. But I hope that we will get there, and when we do, I think we’ll have done a lot of other things that will really lay the groundwork for making this truly the century of Asia. Thank you very much.