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C. Hill: Building a Roadmap for Peace in Northeast Asia

Address to the International Leadership Conference
Seoul, Korea - February 10, 2014

[transcript of recorded remarks]

Let me begin by thanking the sponsors, the Universal Peace Federation and the Washington Times Foundation, for putting together this really very, very important conference.

I’ve just come from a long weekend at Narita airport [flights were canceled because of a snow storm], and for those tourists out there, I don’t need to tell you it’s a great airport but not a great hotel. And so I slept on the floor at the airport. They gave us each a sleeping bag, a bottle of water and some crackers. So you cannot imagine the pleasure I felt when I arrived here at the Lotte World Hotel and actually had a bed to sleep in. So it truly is great to be here.

It’s also great to be here on this cold February day because I think February is kind of a special month in Korea in a certain sense. It’s a special month because this is a time when the spring plowing has not begun, the previous harvest is long since over. It used to be people were actually beginning to look to barley to make their daily meal. But I think it’s also a time for reflection and for thinking about what will come in the coming year.

And I think as we gather here together in this distinguished international audience there is one fact that I think is made clear by this international audience, which is the world is not just about the Korean peninsula, not just about the travails of dealing with a very difficult place just 40 miles north of here. But rather I think we need to begin to understand that the roadmap for peace is a long road and a road that will be very difficult to travel, but it includes a lot of different places in the world.

It includes an effort to try to manage problems in some places, try to fix problems in others. But I think most importantly a road that, if we’re going to travel it successfully, involves I think the need to talk to each other not only with a higher degree of understanding but also a higher degree of civility, of politeness, of a willingness to listen to the other point of view and to give that other point of view due consideration.

And so I think it is not just one of the best places in the world that we could bring such a wide-ranging audience together to talk about a specific issue, but to understand that the roots of that specific issue lie in many other areas.

This is not to say that the world we face today is the most difficult moment in history. There have been many difficult moments in history. But it is to say that this is a tough one and we are going to have to do a much better job than we have done up until now in dealing with this.

There are many regional conflicts that today go unmitigated and unmediated. We see a situation in Syria. I don’t think any human being can turn on his or her television and not feel for the suffering of people there. But I think we need to understand that that problem and many other problems, while some might argue are somehow military in nature, I would argue they are political and diplomatic in nature. Syrians, all Syrians, whether they are Alawites, whether they are Sunnis, whether they are Kurds, whether they are Druze, whether they are Christian, they need to know what is the future going to look like for them in Syria, what are the political arrangements going to be in Syria.

Because when people are fighting there today, they are fighting really against an unknown future and they worry greatly about what that future will look like. And until they can be assured that that future will be better, they will continue to fight. And once they know what that future will be, nobody – nobody likes to be the last person to die in a civil war. I think they would all be prepared to get on with what that future might be, whether it’s a more federalist kind of system in Syria, whether you have means by which the different communities can express themselves together, can have certain minority rights. Whatever the political arrangements there need to be, those political arrangements need to be identified and we need to begin to move forward.

But I think what is the problem in Syria is a deeper problem that is not just in Syria but is manifesting itself many other places. And that is the fact that countries that have a kind of global reach, countries that should be involved in solutions all over the world, not just regionally in their own region but also in other regions of the world, need to develop a kind of better pattern of cooperation.

I do hope that, as difficult as the U.S.-Russian relationship has been in recent years, that perhaps Syria can be the place where the U.S.-Russian relationship kind of puts aside some of our differences and starts focusing on some of the common vision we have for trying to deal with these problems and trying to assure that the basic humanitarian problems of Syria can be addressed.

So I think there needs to be much more of a pattern of cooperation among countries that have global interest. I mentioned the U.S. and Russia but there are many other such examples. I think leaders need to develop a better ability to reach out to each other and better ability to talk with each other and to put aside some of the mistrust.

This is not an easy process, and for those who say this is always just a problem of why doesn’t leader A pick up the phone and talk to leader B, that may be the Dennis Rodman school of diplomacy but I can assure you there’s more to it than that. I think they need to understand each other’s issues and try to empathize with those problems and try to move ahead.

I mention that because I think many countries today, many countries that have this kind of global reach, such as my own country, such as Russia, such as an emerging China – and I’ll get to China in a bit. I think many of these countries with this global reach also find that they are beset by very difficult domestic problems. And I think we are seeing more and more that countries have a great deal of difficulty exercising global responsibilities when they have to spend all of their time on domestic issues.

In my country, for example, we have seen an unprecedented lack of communication and lack of cooperation between our branches of government, our congressional – our legislative branch of government, our executive branch of government. Even our Supreme Court, even our judicial system has had trouble meshing with the others. The United States has to deal with that problem. We need to deal with it better than we have up until now, and we need to stop talking about whose fault it is because nobody cares whose fault it is. They want to see people start dealing with it.

But at the same time we should not for a minute think that other countries don’t have these same kinds of problems. Russia’s issues I think are also very well known and Russia also needs to have some kind of domestic consensus on some issues before they go ahead.

And so I think we all owe it to ourselves and owe it to the world to try to deal with our domestic problems and to try to exercise our international responsibilities better than we have.

I’ve mentioned Russia, I’ve mentioned the United States, and now let me mention China. I think one of the big disappointments for me in recent years was to see that China has now become increasingly preoccupied by domestic problems. I don’t mean to make light of these problems or to suggest that they are not serious, but I think the problem is that when people deal with domestic problems, they often don’t give the same respect to the international issues that they have to deal with.

And I think some of the domestic problems – this is true in my country, this is true in Russia, this is certainly true in China – have had to do with the kind of problems of nationalism, the problems of a certain percentage of the society feeling a very sort of need to be aggressive in the rest of the world. And so the issue is how we’re going to deal with those domestic issues and how do you prevent those domestic kinds of attitudes and problems from becoming part of your reputation abroad.

I think with respect to China, a few years ago China was seen as a great example of sort of diplomatic virtue, a great example of sort of emerging soft power in the world, where Chinese leaders would go and visit leaders in Southeast Asia and not just spend 18 hours there but sometimes spend several days there. It was an example of soft power at its best. When you deal with someone smaller, you should always spend greater time listening to that entity’s views.

And so now what we’re seeing is quite the opposite phenomenon develop. We’re seeing efforts by China through something called nine dash line. I won’t bore you with what nine dash line means, but it basically refers to the concept that the South China Sea can be turned into a southern Chinese lake. And if you want to turn the South China Sea into a southern Chinese lake, you need to be prepared for the fact that there are other countries there who are not going to be entirely happy with this process, and are frankly going to resent it and are frankly going to take it as something where you are using your greater size to somehow coerce them. In short, you need to be very, very careful about allowing your domestic nationalism to spill into international issues.

So today we have something that the United States did not seek and does not want. We have now bilateral problems between China and its neighbors. This is not in our interest, this is not in anybody’s interest. But it is clear that from the Chinese perspective, while they have priorities within China, they need to understand that a priority should be a better relation with its neighbors. How they accomplish that it’s not my business to tell them, but I know that that needs to be calmed down.

And to see this every day, these problems, whether it’s this air defense zone issue, whether it’s a fishing zone issue, whether it’s an effort to exert the right to raw material extraction when another country claims that same right, this needs to be calmed down and it needs to be calmed down in the spirit of community. Because you can pick your friends, you can even pick your enemies, but you cannot pick your neighbors. And those neighbors are going to be there for a long, long time.

So I mention this as someone who is very – believes that in my lifetime one of the greatest events in the period of my lifetime has been this peaceful rise of China. And so I speak as someone who’s disappointed by the direction that things have gone, especially in recent months and years.

I mention Southeast Asia, but I could also mention the China-Japan relationship. I know – believe me, as an American I know that there have been very, very troubled times from the history. You would have to have not read a single book not to understand what the history was in the middle of the 20th century, and yet I would like to see if China and Japan could understand that it is not true that one has to be up while the other has to be down. Both countries, I think, can do a better job both to be up and both to understand the need for kind of patterns of cooperation.

I am not saying that outcropping of rocks in the East China Sea, or whatever sea you want to call it, is unimportant. I know it’s important. But it is not important compared to the overall importance of a good China-Japan relationship. It is minimally important compared to the need for those two great countries to try to work together, to try to understand each other better, and yes, to try to acknowledge the history, and once acknowledged, to move on. History needs to be understood but it doesn’t need to be a prison for the rest of us.

So I think there does need to be a lot of work there, but you can see within Japan as well, just as these other powers are having this problem, a preoccupation with domestic problems, and this domestic preoccupation has not allowed them to do the work that is necessary to create I think a better international atmosphere.

So China and Japan need to do a better job, just as China and Southeast Asia need to do a better job. But lest you begin to think this is all about China, it is not, because I think the ROK has an absolutely key role in not only dealing with China but also in dealing with Japan as well. And I know these issues are not easy and I’m not simply suggesting that they could be solved overnight.

But I think it needs to understand that if this region is to succeed and be not only an exporter of wonderful consumer products but also an exporter of security and an exporter of a good approach to neighborly relations needed in other parts of the world, it needs to begin to deal with some of these diplomatic issues that exist now between the ROK and Japan, between Japan and China, between the Southeast Asia and China. There needs to be, I think, a much better, much more comprehensive diplomatic approach to make sure these problems don’t begin to dominate the issues in this part of the world.

Now I am now coming to an issue that I don’t think is the main problem but I think is a symptom of the problem, a symptom of many problems, and that is North Korea. It is not to say that North Korea is somehow irrelevant to a roadmap to peace. It’s actually a very important part of that roadmap to peace in this part of the world. But I submit to you that the problem of North Korea could be resolved by better relations among the other countries not named North Korea. That is, a better ROK-China relationship, a better China-Japan-ROK relationship, a better Japan-China relationship could all contribute to dealing with the North Korean issue.

Now there are those who say, well, you seem to be mentioning, including Russia, you mentioned all the other countries of the six parties and that this is some kind of unfair ganging up on North Korea, five to one. This is not fair to the poor North Koreans. In fact, I think it does represent a basis for building a consensus on what needs to be done, and I think that consensus needs to be very clear. North Korea cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. This is not just a slogan. These are not empty words. We must make very clear that North Korea cannot have these nuclear weapons. It is not acceptable to the standards of this region. It is not acceptable to the peace and security of this region.

I don’t think there are any of those five other countries in the six-party talks who would disagree with that proposition. I don’t think China, Russia, U.S., ROK or Japan would say, well, you know, North Korea, they have special concerns; they need some kind of level of nuclear deterrence. They do not. And I think we need to continue to make that abundantly clear to the North Koreans, that the path they have chosen is not one that for us is acceptable in our mask (ph) for peace and security.

Ironically, sometimes in my country you get these hardliners who seem more interested in disproving the notion of diplomacy than they are in preventing North Korea from having nuclear weapons. People say, you can never get rid of the nuclear weapons through negotiation. They are more interested in disproving negotiation than they are getting rid of the weapons.

And what they don’t realize is that in saying that you cannot get them to get rid of their nuclear weapons by negotiation, they are telling the North Koreans, be patient; sooner or later they will accept you as a nuclear state. And so ironically the real hard-liners to North Korea are the people who actually give the North Koreans hope that if they just stay stubborn they will eventually be allowed to be a nuclear state n Northeast Asia. Everybody has their hardliners. It’s not just in the United States, it’s not just in Russia; it’s all over the place. But it’s very important that those people so concerned about disproving the value of diplomacy not be allowed to create even worse outcomes.

So I think we have come to an important moment. I think 2014 will be – and we’ve said this in previous years but this time I think we can really believe that this will be, I think, a very, very important time for whether we’re going to have a diplomatic process going forward.

I think that successful process, however, needs to be, if not preceded it needs to be at least run alongside a parallel effort to improve Japan-ROK relations, to improve Japan-China relations, to improve China’s relations with the ROK, but also to make sure that that issue of Southeast Asia with the South China Sea is not allowed to become a kind of major international issue.

I am aware that when the United States tried to rebalance its efforts, to try to do a little less in the Middle East and a little more in East Asia, I realize that there were some unintended consequences of that. I realize, for example, that as the U.S. tried to wind up its military involvement in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, people said, oh, the U.S. doesn’t care about the Middle East. I think Secretary Kerry has made some 10 or 11 trips to the Middle East, should have disproven the idea that we don’t care about the Middle East.

And I hope people will come to understand that the U.S. is very serious about trying to work with others to put together a solution to some specific issues in dealing with this broader problem in the Middle East, this broader kind of sectarianism that has risen up and will calm down, with the question being when will it calm down. So I realize that the United States is accused of not caring about the Middle East, but I beg to differ, and I think it was an unintended consequence.

At the same time, there are also those, especially in China, who believe that the U.S. interest in moving into and being more active in East Asia was somehow an effort to contain China, was somehow an effort at containment. It only looks like an effort to have containment when China maintains bad relations with its neighbors. And I submit to you that the U.S. is not interested in these bad relations. On the contrary, we want a much better picture because we want to work with China, and there are so many areas where we need to work with China. And I think North Korea would be a very good place to continue.

People talk about China is worried about North Korea’s collapse, that there would be all these North Korean refugees. Frankly speaking, if North Korea collapsed, whatever that means, and there were refugees, I’m sure many of those refugees would be coming south rather than north. So if anyone is going to worry about refugees, it should be the ROK, not China. So I don’t think the issue is really refugees for China. I think the issue is much deeper. I think the issue for China is if North Korea somehow goes away, ROK is the successor state, that for China this will be seen by them as a defeat and somehow a victory for the United States. This is the wrong way to look at it, but there are many people who look at it this way.

So I think it’s for the U.S. to some extent to try to assure the Chinese, we have no interest in having troops up on the Yalu River. We have no interest in having listening posts on the Yalu River. We have no interest in any way in compromising the security that China has, and we’re certainly prepared to have in-depth discussions if there’s any doubt about that.

So I think China needs to kind of get over this zero-sum thinking, this idea you win-we lose, we win-you lose. They need to get over that and start understanding that the impediment to the construction of this roadmap in this region remains bad relations among the parties, and especially the continued behavior of the North Koreans.

So I think this is not an impossible scenario, but I think we need to do a lot more talking together and we need to do a lot more drawing on this map, how we’re going to pursue it. I do believe that the six-party talks is the best way to do it. There are those who say it should be four-party talks. There are those who say it should be eight-party talks. There are those who say it ought to be 84-party talks. It doesn’t really matter. The issue is not how the mechanism is set up. The issue is really whether we can get the kind of diplomatic cooperation necessary to get this done.

So I want to just say that I really look forward to our further discussion about this today. I think this is a good place and a good time for contemplation about this year to come and what we can do together, together, to build a better future, not only in this region but to create the kind of patterns of cooperation, patterns of cooperation that are necessary to address other problems in the world.

Let us hope that the Olympics in Sochi will also be an opportunity for this. I think unfortunately Olympics are sometimes an opportunity for flag-waving rather than celebration of our common civilization. Be that as it may, we can all be very pleased that Russia won the team gold medal for figure skating and that we can all, I think, celebrate each other’s triumphs because people have worked very hard.

So thank you very much, and I look forward to further discussion. Thank you.