Jeffrey LewisKessler on Chris Hill

With the rumors that Hill will leave any day now swirling, the WaPo’s Glenn Kessler has a long, front-page profile of Assistant Secretary Chris Hill (“Mid-Level Official Steered U.S. Shift On North Korea,” May 26, 2008).

Maybe Hill is finally pushing back against all the rumors that he is resigning or otherwise being thrown to the wolves. In other words, perhaps it’s payback time for the excellent sourcing in Chapter Three of Kessler’s excellent The Confidante ( which doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.)

Or, maybe, folks in Cheneyland are eager to make clear how far out on the limb Hill has crawled and just how many people in Washington are breaking out the saws. After all, normally reporters sweeten their beat by writing a flattering profile of an administration official at the beginning of his tenure, not the end. And letting Victor Cha call him a “a media hog trying to be a hero,” for instance, doesn’t seem very, well, sweet.

I really can’t tell. Maybe Hill will let Nelson-san know one way or the other.

Anyway, the key graf, to my mind, appears near the end. Apart from engineering the New York Philharmonic visit, Kessler gives Hill the credit/blame for convincing Rice and Bush to strike a deal on plutonium production before tackling other issues like Syria or uranium enrichment.

In perhaps his biggest coup, Hill convinced Rice and Bush that the top priority is to get ahold of North Korea’s stash of plutonium, and that other issues are secondary. In Bush’s first term, the administration had accused North Korea of having an uranium-enrichment program, which led to the breakdown of a 1994 agreement that kept Pyongyang from separating plutonium to make nuclear warheads.

The uranium-enrichment issue has faded in importance because the original intelligence was overstated. In changing gears, the president has acknowledged that his previous approach was a mistake.

[Former NSC staffer Caroline] Leddy said that last fall, when China first proposed separating the plutonium issue from other concerns in North Korea’s nuclear declaration, she saw a White House document describing the idea with the notation “President says No.” But that is precisely the deal Hill struck last month.


  1. Bruce A. Roth (History)

    Just a few short months ago, Hill tied for second place in ACA’s “Arms Control Person of the Year” poll.

  2. Andy (History)

    Hill did exactly the right thing by focusing on the plutonium element. It provides a useful litmus test to gauge the seriousness of the DPRK’s commitments. If it becomes clear the DPRK Pu declaration is is dishonest , then it’s better to know now, in my opinion. If not, then that shows promise for dealing with the other issues successfully.

    This is one “tactical” area Bush administration absolutists have never been good at and here I think they underestimate the value of giving an adversary some rope to see if they help or hang themselves with it.