Oscar for patient diplomacy

by Tom Plate

LOS ANGELES — For much of the first few years of the new millennium, North Korea was viewed as the most probable nation-state aggressor in Asia.

The holed-up communist regime had precious little to show for its decades in power, apart from its notorious pileup of arms and soldiers, which it brandished in pathetic abundance. Its creepy isolation and penchant for primitive propaganda pronouncements made scenarios of aggression more sellable than silly.

In short, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was everything a paranoid anticommunist could hope for by way of a credible mean tangible villain.

But nothing much happened. Save for a few missile tests that seem more scattershot than strategic, and the occasional minor naval dust-up at sea, North Korea stayed on its side of the Demilitarized Zone. In due course, in fact, the regime was even negotiating possible unilateral nuclear disarmament with its immediate neighbors (South Korea, Russia, Japan and China) as well as with the United States.

Why no war of any magnitude broke out cannot be attributed to any one factor or to any one country, much less to the inspired work of any one person. Even so, the other night at a fancy hotel in Los Angeles, a nonprofit named the Pacific Century Institute — a perennially valuable and effective local do-gooder — made a noteworthy statement on this theme. It presented its 2008 “Building Bridges” award (a sort of classy civic Oscar here) to an otherwise semi-anonymous U.S. bureaucrat.

But when the award was presented, the ballroom audience that included Korean-American businessmen and public figures as well as grateful Angelenos of all kinds rose almost as one to its feet in a boisterous standing ovation. And this was for a mere bureaucrat.

His name is Christopher R. Hill, a career U.S. foreign-service officer. Though his record of accomplishment is most impressive, he is anything but a brand name in America, and is best known to his State Department and other colleagues as a “diplomat’s diplomat.” He is the chief U.S. representative to the six-party talks on North Korea.

Sitting at the same table as Hill before the award presentation, I angled to sound him out about secret negotiations with North Korea. The U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (his official title) was surprisingly unoffended by the blunt and direct question, and put forward an analysis of the North Korean negotiations that were so illuminating and intelligent that I urged him to offer the ballroom audience that night a generalized summary (as much as state secrecy would permit) of his thoughts. Here are some:

The six-party talks are golden even if they do not conclude in complete North Korean disarmament (“I can’t guarantee it,” admitted Hill). They have brought the region together and have served to remind the U.S. that it cannot solve the North Korean problem alone. Hill believes that, most importantly, the six-party talks have fostered a positive evolution in the U.S. bilateral relationships with China and South Korea (which inaugurates a new President.) “These relationships are so much better as a result of the talks,” he said.

Someone said: Sitting across the bargaining table from those cross and cold North Korean negotiators would surely try any normal person’s soul. Hill shrugged that off, adding it was essential to be “respectful of the other side’s problem. He [other side] does have a different point of view than yours. If it were the same as yours, then wouldn’t it be an easy negotiation? We could finish it in minutes.”

Negotiations of this sensitive kind, he continued, cannot succeed without deep mutual respect, especially when the substantive differences are huge, as with North Korea. “You have to proceed in small parts, very businesslike, step by step, carefully, respectfully.”

But surely, on occasion, even Mr. Cool-as-Cucumber Super-Negotiator wants to pull his hair and perhaps that of the North Korean delegation’s, right?”

“Sure, there are many things I might want to say to the North Koreans, perhaps not all of them totally polite,” he continued. “But at the same time it is in their interest to conclude this negotiation properly” — assuming, he suggests, that our side is patient, too.

Hill then smiled and jokingly mentioned his Chinese colleagues at the six-party talks. They have in his view been skillful and helpful. But it is in their cultural skin to be constantly urging Hill and the American delegation to be patient, don’t get irritated, keep negotiating.

Hill agrees wholeheartedly with that advice, but admits that sometimes he can’t help but offer his Chinese colleagues the same recommendation — on the tortured and ever-volatile issue of Taiwan. Just be more patient, he says, staring them in the face: Isn’t that the Chinese way?

But patience takes time, and time may be running out. Having refused to negotiate with North Korea for the first of its two terms, the Bush administration, with less than a slim year left in office, is now all but openly praying that their point man for North Korea gets the full job done soon. If anyone can do that, it is probably “bridge-builder” Hill.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Burkle Center on International Policy, is the author of “Confessions of an American Media Man.” Copyright 2008 Tom Plate