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‘I Just Don’t Think It’s the Right Approach.’ Ambassador Christopher Hill on Why North Korea May Be Taking the U.S. for a Ride

8 minute read

Christopher Hill knows a thing or two about negotiating with North Korea. As U.S. Ambassador to South Korea between 2004 and 2005, he had a front row seat during the Six-Party Denuclearization Talks between North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S.

Those talks, which ran between 2003 and 2009, were eventually suspended as it become evident that North Korea was accelerating rather than ending its nuclear program. Missile and nuclear tests continued until late last year, when the Kim Jong Un regime launched an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of targeting any American city.

President Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury” if North Korea did not come to heel. He pursued unprecedented U.N. sanctions to squeeze the regime financially. In addition, last year South Korea welcomed a new President, Moon Jae-in, who made engagement with the North a top priority.

Over the course of 2018, nuclear facilities have been destroyed and no new weapons tested. Trump and Kim sat down for a historic summit in Singapore in June. But since then, denuclearization progress has been stuttering. Washington and Seoul face a choice between easing sanctions to engender trust, or maintaining maximum pressure.

Currently Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, Ambassador Hill spoke to TIME by phone about the best way to leverage the recent warming of relations between Seoul and Pyongyang to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

How would you judge progress over the past year?

I would say very little has happened in the six months since Singapore. And in a way, I think things have gotten even worse. One major consequence of Singapore was a kind of a relaxation of sanctions [enforcement]. The momentum of the sanctions, which included gasoline and oil products, seems to have weakened. Of great concern to me is the failure to work with China in any meaningful way. In fact, the only concrete result of all this seems to be that China-North Korea relations are better than they’ve been for some eight years.

President Donald Trump (R) gestures as he meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) at the start of their summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018.Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

South Korea’s President Moon says relaxation of sanctions is necessary to build trust and maintain momentum. Do you disagree?

I would like to get the North Koreans on a schedule of concrete acts of denuclearization rather than engaging in the “random acts of kindness.” While the U.S. has certainly tried to work with South Korea, there has been a kind of coordinated policy but not wherein the U.S. and South Korea have gone in together to talk to the North Koreans. The failure to develop any kind of multilateral structure has essentially allowed the North Koreans to say different things to different people and, to some extent, they sound a lot more forthcoming to the South Koreans than to the US.

There’s certainly a great number of people in South Korea who worry about the U.S. alliance and understand the importance of that alliance. But President Trump’s comment in Singapore that he would prefer to “bring all the troops home,” and then when he started to speak a little North Korean by calling our [joint military] exercises “provocative war games,” has kind of weakened those who argue that we, South Koreans, need to be very careful what we do with North Korea lest we create problems in frankly the greatest asset that we’ve got, which is this alliance with the United States.

Read more: President Trump Wants North Korea to Give Up Nuclear Weapons. Here’s Just How Hard That Would Be.

The North Koreans are arguing that they can’t give a list of nuclear assets until we have a peace treaty, as other wise it would be akin to handing an enemy a list of military targets.

That’s nonsense. They gave us a list back in 2007 or 2008. The problem was that the list was incomplete. They know that we know where they have facilities. They’ve got to give a list of what they’re up to. And the problem back in 2008 was a failure to mention uranium enrichment, which is clearly part of their nuclear program. And as for the idea that they need a peace treaty first, what they are suggesting is that the U.S. needs to reduce or eliminate its troops on the Korean peninsula. After all, if you have a peace treaty, why would you need troops there?

How would you rate the progress made by President Moon? After all, under his guidance we’ve gone from threats of “fire and fury” to President Trump saying of Kim “we fell in love.”

He’s brought down the temperature and created some North—South mechanisms that in the long run will be helpful, because the problem of North Korea goes deeper than just the Kim family. So to try to have some processes going, whether in Kaesong [joint industrial zone in the DMZ], or elsewhere is probably good for peninsula relations. The problem, though, is that it has moved with far more momentum and speed than the denuclearization issue. And it’s important that the U.S. not put itself in the role of trying to slow down inter-Korean dialogue, because that feeds a narrative that Korea is divided because of the policies of the U.S., which is a prevalent narrative on the extreme left of the Korean political spectrum. At the same time, there’s a danger in having peninsula processes go way ahead denuclearization, because it kind of hollows out the South Korean view that they will not normalize with North Korea until [the Kim regime] gives up nuclear weapons.

Many people say that they will never give up nuclear weapons.

I don’t think the North Koreans want nuclear weapons for self-defense [as they claim]. In short, I think the North Koreans have in mind that if they continue to threaten us with the capability of a direct strike, the U.S. will somehow weaken its posture in South Korea. So I think it’s all aimed at reducing the presence of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula and not so much at protecting themselves against the U.S. invasion.

Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers stand atop armored vehicles during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea on Sept. 9, 2018.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images

Kim has also said a great deal about improving the livelihoods of the North Korean people. But traditional analysis says that would risk too much instability by opening up the country, which would prompt the North Korean people to demand parity and reunification with the South.

I buy that argument. The Chinese for decades have thought that by showing their example to North Korea that North Korea would want to follow it. But the Chinese example also involved a certain opening up to the rest of the world. There are Chinese all over the world, including one of the largest foreign student populations in the U.S. and Europe. I’m not sure the North Koreans are prepared for that.

The Chinese and others often make the case: why don’t we just leave them alone and let them develop and then they’ll see the evil of their ways, and will see that nuclear weapons are not helping their efforts to develop their country. Or why don’t we just give them an opportunity by relaxing sanctions, et cetera.

To some extent, when President Trump talks about beachfront condominiums, or Secretary Pompeo shows the New York skyline to his North Korean counterpart, they’re trying to influence the North Koreans with things that we’re interested in. And I think too often they don’t understand that these niceties and engagements are really seen by suspicious North Koreans as an effort to undermine them, or by less suspicious North Koreans as a sign of weakness. So I just don’t think it’s the right approach.

So how do we go about persuading North Korea to denuclearize?

It would be a combination of very strong sanctions, maybe even some sabotage of their [foreign revenue] programs, and taking them step by step and making sure they understand that if they don’t do this we will be resolute about looking for ways to make their lives miserable overseas. We will break up their supply chains. We will attack their bank accounts. But we need to work with China and start going after their oil supply. I don’t think sanctions have a chance of working without China fully on board and they are not right now.

Do you believe its possible to keep China engaged amid an escalating trade war?

I do have concerns. I think there needs to be a much more focused discussion with the Chinese at a senior level about what we can do [about proliferation]. But for people who say bilateral trade imbalances don’t matter, the fact is that they do. China’s become a symbol of job loss and everything else that has gone wrong with the U.S. economy. And so China needs to understand that this [trade relationship] is a major political problem. But we need to understand too that you can’t be trying to humiliate China or suggest that we’re trying to hold it [back] in some way. Instead, we need to have serious and focused discussions about important issues. And I put North Korea at the top of that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Xining at charlie.campbell@time.com