From NBC's Carrie Dann and Libby Leist
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said today that he has NOT been asked to stay on in an Obama administration. "I haven't talked to anybody about my future," he said in response to a reporter's question about a possible role in the diplomatic corps of the next president, adding wryly, "I do need to figure out what I'm going to do when I grow up."
Hill, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs since 2005, has been central to painstakingly delicate negotiations between the United States and North Korea as the West efforts a complete nuclear disarmament by Pyongyang. His diplomatic style would make him a conceivable match for Obama's State Department team; in 2007, he successfully lobbied Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in favor of bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea, and he has famously clashed with more hard-line negotiators like former UN ambassador John Bolton.
The ambassador spoke to reporters today in the wake of bad news for the U.S. in six-party talks, which suffered a major setback last week when North Korean negotiators refused to sign on to guidelines for a "verification protocol" that would open up north Korean nuclear facilities to intrusive inspections, including collecting and removing nuclear samples from the country.
The requirement of such a protocol has caused friction among Republicans eager to reduce the threat presented by eccentric leader Kim Jong Il. Some have pinned blame for the derailed talks on the stringent requirements advocated by Bolton and his allies. Bolton has said that Hill's carrot-and-stick approach "prizes the negotiation process over substance" and scathingly noted that North Korea has been granted significant concessions, such as being removed from the United States' list of state sponsors of terrorism, without offering promised compromises in return.
But today, Hill placed the blame squarely outside of the U.S., saying that North Korean officials are the ones dragging their feet on final steps despite having agreed to all but a final round of written and oral concessions. "I would think it's possible to do today, if they agreed to do it," he said when asked what kind of progress -- if any -- could be made before the new administration takes office.
Hill also outlined strategies that could eventually prod Pyongyang into giving up the remainder of its nuclear materials. Bargaining chips on the table, he said, could be the relaxation of sanctions, a joint peace treaty with the U.S. and South Korea, or U.S. recognition of North Korea's nationhood. "Maybe at that point," he said, "North Korea will come to the understanding that most countries in the world have come to understand. Which is [that] you don't need nuclear weapons to protect yourself. You need good relations with your neighbors to protect yourself."