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Hill: N. Korea not serious about talks, but U.S. has no other option

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 (Yonhap) -- By apparently restarting its once-disabled nuclear reactor, North Korea has demonstrated that it is not intent on holding denuclearization talks, a former top U.S. negotiator said.

Still, Christopher Hill, an iconic figure in Washington's negotiations with Pyongyang in the 2000s, stressed there is no option for the Barack Obama administration other than dialogue.

"If they are serious about denuclearization, it has nothing to do with their current peace offensive," he said in a recent phone interview from Denver.

"After all, in addition to that, they have also apparently repaired the Yongbyon facility enough to be able to restart it. I think that is an ecological nightmare but also a sign that North Korea is not serious at this time," he added.

Having served as Washington's chief point man on Pyongyang under the second Bush administration, Hill currently works as dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Satellite photos taken in late August suggested the reclusive communist nation put the Soviet-era five-megawatt reactor back into operation. It is capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium a year, experts say.

If confirmed, the North's move would mean a clear violation of a major agreement with its five dialogue partners -- South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. The demolition of the reactor's cooling tower was broadcast live worldwide in 2008.

As an incentive, the U.S. removed North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states.

Hill acted as a key player in the process with the support of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Hill acknowledged his negotiations have not succeeded in disabusing North Korea of its nuclear ambitions.

"On the other hand, the negotiations have very much helped the U.S. in terms of its relations with South Korea," said Hill who served as Washington's ambassador to Seoul from 2004-2005.

Many would also agree that the on-and-off six-party talks, launched in 2003, contributed, at least, to slowing Pyongyang's nuclear development.

But Hill drew a strong condemnation from the so-called hardliners in Washington, including former Vice President Dick Cheney. They accused Hill of making excessive concessions to North Korea. Some critics mockingly called him "Kim Jong Hill."

Hill asks those who oppose negotiations with North Korea if they have a workable alternative.

"If they are suggesting some kind of military option, I don't think that is at all acceptable to anybody," he pointed out. "I think negotiations in the proper configuration and with the proper support by the countries involved is the way to go."

Hill said the format of talks with North Korea is no longer important.

"I don't care if it's the six-party process or 60-party process. I think the problem is whether North Korea is serious," he said.

In that regard, he said, China's attitude really matters.

China, the North's main benefactor, needs to be very firmly convinced that North Korea's nuclear program should be terminated and Pyongyang should not be recognized as a nuclear state, added Hill.

The North has called for the U.S. to resume the six-way talks, stalled since December 2008, without attaching any preconditions. China is trying to revive the process.

The Obama administration, however, reiterates it is interested only in "authentic and credible" negotiations based on Pyongyang's seriousness about denuclearization, not a tactic for gaining political and economic concessions.

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