After having spent the day with students on campus, Ambassador Christopher Hill ’74, H ’14 drew on his extensive foreign service experience to discuss foreign policy issues currently facing the US in his talk “State of the World: America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Challenges” April 24, 2017, in Kresge Auditorium.
A former career diplomat and a four-time ambassador, his last post was as ambassador to Iraq, which he left in 2010. Prior to Iraq, Hill served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He was the US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, to Poland, and to the Republic of Macedonia, and he was special envoy to Kosovo. Hill also served as a special assistant to the president and a senior director on the staff of the National Security Council.
Hill is now the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Most of Hill’s forty-minute address was taken up with his thoughts on the North Korean situation, which he described as an imminent problem “coming down the tracks.” “We really are going to have to deal with this one,” he said.
Hill has some experience in the region, having served as US ambassador to South Korea in 2004-2005, and then spending four years as America’s representative in the six-party talks, which aimed to find a peaceful resolution to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
“It was a different situation then,” said Hill, “because the prospect of a deliverable North Korean nuclear weapon … was still something very much in the future.” Now it’s not such a distant prospect, he said, pointing out that dictator Kim Jong-un ordered two nuclear tests in 2016 and up to thirty missile tests.
It’s important to understand what is motivating the North Korean leadership in its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons. “It has to do with a longstanding North Korean effort to decouple the United States from South Korea.” Pyongyang, said Hill, is hoping that possession of nuclear weapons would dissuade the US from intervening in any future conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Given this, what should the US do, seeing that direct negotiations with North Korea do not seem to work? “We’re dealing with a pretty tough, serious, no-kidding problem,” said Hill. He is not keen on the idea of a pre-emptive military strike to prevent Pyongyang developing nukes, because the stakes are too high. He pointed out that North Korea has thousands of artillery tubes and rocket launchers pointing at the South, within range of twenty million people. Do we really want a second Korean war? Hill asked.
This leaves diplomacy, and because North Korea has shown the world it cannot be trusted, Hill said the solution should involve increased US cooperation with China. Washington, he said, needs to engage more with Beijing on this issue, the resolution of which would be in both country’s best interests. China, for its faults, is more pluralistic than we think, said Hill. “This is a deep and rich civilization and we need to understand them better.”
Above all, he said, Washington needs to reassure Beijing that the US has no offensive military designs on the Korean peninsula. “We are not interested in putting US soldiers into the northern part of South Korea. We’re not interested in US soldiers on the Yalu river—been there, done that.”
Diplomacy aside, said Hill, there remains scope for some action to be taken against North Korea in the form of cyberwarfare. “There is a space between peace and war” he said, pointing out that cyberattacks against Pyongyang’s missile program would be one way of slowing the regime’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
The bottom line, said Hill, is that preventing North Korea from going nuclear is a US foreign policy priority, and increased cooperation with China is likely the best way to achieve that goal, difficult as that may be.
Regarding the Syrian situation, Hill said the world needs a better answer to that problem: one that doesn’t involve the arming of guerrilla groups. “I don’t think Syria needs any more weapons,” he said. Many opposition groups are dangerous, he added, and the US should not be in the business of picking winners and losers.
Hill said he also accepts that President Bashar Al Assad should go, but also that regime-change as an end in itself is not a good idea. A plan for Syria’s future must to be drawn up, and Hill said diplomats should take inspiration from how the Bosnian issue was solved back in 1995.
“People say ‘we ended Bosnia by bombing the Serbs’ … No, we didn’t,” said Hill. “What we did in Bosnia was to lay out, with other powers … an agreement.” It was not easy, he said, but it worked.