Book Review: “Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy”

Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy.
A Memoir by Christopher R. Hill. New York: Simon & Schuster, October 2014. 448 pp.

Outpost: Life on the Frontlines (Simon & Schuster)Christopher Hill is an American diplomat with a long career and wide experience, often in dangerous places. His new memoir, Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacyunderlines again and again the professionalism and sacrifice of the underappreciated and much maligned Foreign Service.

Overall, the book’s style is breezy, very much like watching Ambassador Hill during his years as Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs—a figure making quips to himself while skating very fast in the gloom, zigzagging across a frozen lake that at any moment threatens to crack open.

Breezy, it should be noted, is good—up to a point. A lot of space, however, is taken up in the book by describing who sat where at the dinner table, or how the chairs were placed in a room. It’s very well to adopt a “You Are There” style, but it runs the risk of pulling a reader off track, trying to get the picture straight, much less figuring out what difference these details made to events. And sharp repartee, especially in the form of things one supposedly said to oneself, can wear a little thin. These stylistic baubles are often the doing of an editor rather than an author, however, so they properly belong in the basket of minor quibbles.

Outpost, after a brief account of Hill’s life growing up in a Foreign Service family and service in the Peace Corps, covers six US administrations—Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. To be completely fair, this is not a book about the North Korean issue, but about Chris Hill and his service to the United States. Yet as significant portion of it does touch on North Korea, and that is what most concerns us here.

For our purposes, the key chapters (14-20) fit into a series of memoirs that touch on the George W. Bush presidency’s approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. The President, Vice President, Secretaries of State and Defense, one senior State Department official (John Bolton) and at least one National Security Council player (Victor Cha) have all put their accounts on the record. Given that for its entire eight years in office the administration was thoroughly at war with itself on the Korean issue (and a long list of other things, as well), it is not surprising that these accounts do not all jibe, or that the knives frequently flash. In any case, memoirs are notoriously self-serving. That is one of their fascinations, but it also makes them difficult to use when in search of historical accuracy.

One of the delights in Hill’s book is, in fact, his ability to harpoon whales and minnows. Old grudges leap off the page. Vice President Cheney did not like Hill; the animus was reciprocated in full. At another point, Hill spears and delicately fillets Secretary Rice’s counselor, Philip Zelikow. On the other side of the ledger, there is a certain hushed adoration on Hill’s part for Condi Rice, with only occasional growls of irritation. (If one pictures Hill as skating on thin ice, in Hill’s portrayal, Rice practically walks on water.) Most glaringly, there is nary a word of complaint about President Bush. All right, Hill took a difficult job and did his best under the constraints, of which there were many. But for there to be no complaints about the President from someone leading the North Korean nuclear negotiations from 2005-2008, can it be that many of us have so thoroughly misunderstood the policy and the President’s role in those years? (Answer: I don’t think so.) Only late in his account of the North Korean sections, does Hill, very gingerly, note that because of the Bush Administration’s concerns about the North’s clandestine uranium enrichment program, talks with the North “went into hiatus while the nuclear program accelerated.” A reader not paying attention might miss that very damning indictment.

It is very good finally to get Hill’s account of events and personalities, but parts of his account are disappointingly thin. Some key events are either left out entirely or treated with such dispatch that a reader who doesn’t already know the story will not be the wiser at the end of the chapters. Overall, a reader may never be quite clear whether Hill was implementing a policy he endorsed or whether, as a good FSO, he was doing what he was told to do as best he could.

For sure, Hill was not one of the ideologues in the Bush Administration. He certainly shows himself sympathetic to Secretary of State Colin Powell and his travails in dealing with the US invasion of Iraq. Hill makes an interesting observation about how Powell, though he did not agree with 85 percent of his briefings on the Iraq WMD program before his UN presentation in February 2003, went ahead with the presentation anyway. Hill’s conclusion is—if you don’t agree with 85 percent, maybe you shouldn’t go with the remaining 15 percent either. It leaves hanging the question of what the ratio was for Hill himself in working the Administration’s policy on North Korea.

From the evidence in the book, Hill does not seem to have suffered many qualms in signing on to George W. Bush’s second administration’s North Korea policy. To be sure, Hill was not an Asia specialist. He was briefly assigned to the Embassy in Seoul as an economic officer from 1985-1988. He then came back to serve as ambassador for less than a year before being appointed Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific (EAP) Affairs in 2005. By Hill’s account, he was in Washington in December 2004 when he learned, to his surprise, that he was being considered for the EAP assignment. Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (never anything if not blunt) told Hill he didn’t belong at EAP, that he would be better in the European Bureau. Yet Condi Rice and her deputy, Steve Hadley, wanted Hill at EAP, and so that is where he went.

To his credit, Hill managed to help pull the policy on North Korea largely free from the inter-agency ideological morass that existed (through no fault of his own) during James Kelly’s term as EAP Assistant Secretary. Unfortunately, from the house-to-house warfare of the first Bush administration, in the second Bush administration, the situation stumbled into another morass—incoherence.

Hill, by his account, thought dealing with the North Koreans was another version of dealing with the Serbs. He relied on his experience with Richard Holbrooke in ending the Serbian conflict in the late 1990s. There is virtually no sense in the book (nor, apparently, did those around him catch a whiff of this) of whether Hill thought about utilizing something more applicable. There was a rich body of experience that came from the thousands of hours of US-DPRK interactions from 1993-2000. Hill was aware of them, and he doesn’t dismiss this experience out of hand as the ideologues in the Bush Administration did. Yet neither does he take it to heart. The result was that under his leadership, the significant experience that resided in EAP on dealing with the North Koreans was diluted and largely ignored.

Hill’s recall of his interactions with North Korean diplomats is curious, and disappointing. His portrayals of the North Koreans are almost entirely cartoon-like, and in some cases filled with barely disguised contempt. The book’s chapter title for Hill’s first trip to Pyongyang in June 2007 is “Heart of Darkness.” It is filled with odd personal observations gratuitously denigrating the country he’s supposed to be negotiating with and trying to understand.

Hill largely dismisses his chief DPRK interlocutor, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, as unimportant. Instead, he says with some pride, during negotiations he focused on making sure the North Korean note taker was getting his presentation down.

Really? At that point, the North Korean foreign ministry (still operating under First Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, an important channel to Kim Jong Il), was not to be so easily dismissed as the common wisdom in Washington imagined. Developing good personal chemistry with Kim Gye Gwan was crucial to ensuring that what Hill meant was understood (and even folded into recommendations) by the North Korean side, not just that that the words were conveyed. This, apparently, was a significant problem. One ranking ROK negotiator at the time has said in private that he often observed a serious communications gap between the DPRK and US negotiators.

Hill makes no reference to the New York Philharmonic’s February 2008 trip to Pyongyang, and his significant role in helping that come about. Obviously, one has to pick and choose what to put in a memoir, but this was a pretty important development in which Kim Jong Il apparently took intense personal interest. Similarly, ROK President Roh’s October 2007 summit with Kim was a major development with potentially significant consequences for US efforts to engage the North on the nuclear issue. Again, there is no sense of what Hill thought about the summit or how it may have fit into his calculations.

Most telling is what can only be called a distorted account of the final session of the September 2005 Six Party Talks after the parties had agreed on a joint statement. A reader will have no sense of how Hill’s final, provocatively negative statement (dictated to him from Washington) would, in an instant, undermine the months of work expended by all the parties. Nor is there any sense of how unhappy Hill himself was with having to read it.

Yet Hill is on target again when he describes the North Korean response to his statement, issued in the form of a Foreign Ministry statement the following day. It was, Hill notes, not a declaration that the North was not going to live up to its obligations, but rather “simply an attempt to define the North’s interpretation of the provisions of the agreement that dealt with their assertion of a right to a civil nuclear program.”

Hill says that Six Party Agreement had an “electrifying” effect on the mood in Seoul. What he doesn’t say is that much electricity came from stepping on the live wire of the US Treasury announcement of action against a small Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia (BDA)—an announcement that came the day after the Six Party joint statement. Hill dismisses the BDA issue as “bedeviling” the Six Party Talks for the next 18 months. If “bedeviling” is a nice way of saying “completely destroyed,” “knocked totally off track,” or “smashed to smithereens,” then maybe you could use that term.

On BDA, Hill cannot seem to decide whether he thought the Treasury action was a good idea or a bad idea. In the end, he comes down on the side of it being a bad form of leverage because it was not easily reversible. Here again, he falls back on his experience with the Serbs, noting that the air campaign against the Serbs could be put on and taken off again according to the state of the negotiations. He nails the point that once imposed, these sorts of financial sanctions are difficult and in some cases impossible to reverse. And his unhappiness with Treasury comes through when he relates, with devastating effect, a conversation Secretary Rice had with Undersecretary of State Bob Joseph (a committed hardliner when it came to North Korea) on this point, noting that in response to a question from Rice, Joseph replied “condescendingly” that it was “complicated, very, very difficult and probably cannot be done.”

Hill’s account skips over a crucial period in the summer of 2008. On August 11, at the point the US had committed itself to removing the North from the list of sponsors of state terrorism, Washington informed Pyongyang it would not remove them until there was a “strong verification regime” in place. The North Koreans complained, and some American diplomats agreed, that the US had moved the goal posts and that the two issues had not previously been linked. A few days later, the North stopped measures already underway for dismantling its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. In September, the North announced that it was “restoring” the facilities. None of this appears in Hill’s account, in which there is a bare-bones statement that the North “dug in its heels…waiting to see if they would be removed from the terrorism list.”

In October 2008, Hill traveled again to Pyongyang. His account makes no note of the fact that Kim Jong Il had barely two months earlier suffered a life-threatening stroke. Under such circumstances, what did Hill expect to achieve in Pyongyang? He notes only that the dinner with a “very somber Kim Gye Gwan” signaled “North Korean interest in the give-and-take of negotiations was coming to an end.” In fact, Kim had been much clearer and more blunt. The deal was “over,” he told Hill. Because the US had backed away from removing the North from the terrorism list, Pyongyang had concluded Washington was “not serious,” and the only thing left for the North was to strengthen its “deterrent,” i.e. its nuclear weapons program. How much was this connected with the uneasy situation in Pyongyang in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s stroke, how much a combination of Kim’s stroke and Washington’s abrupt reversal on the terrorism list? Hill doesn’t give us a clue about his views at this crucial moment. Only later in the book does he offer that as of early 2009, his surmise was that the North’s refusal to move any further ahead in late 2008 had “more to do with an internal decision…complicated by Kim Jong Il’s stroke.”

Hill’s account of his involvement with the North Korean issue ends in early 2009 with this: “But as the months and years rolled by without any resumption (of the talks), it was clear to everyone that the North Koreans were at fault. Unlike in the past, nobody blamed the United States.”

Apparently, this is all that Hill can rescue from those years. Even if it were actually true, it is beside the point. By January 2009, the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs were developing virtually unchecked. Nothing done during George W. Bush’s term of office, and nothing during Chris Hill’s term as EAP assistant secretary, had succeeded in changing that. It is certainly not fair to lay the failure exclusively (or even largely) at Hill’s door, nor should that failure detract from his long service in the Foreign Service. But it is a fact, and the consequences of the ever-widening ripples from that failure have yet to be fully felt.

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