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Former ambassador to South Korea speaks at ISU on North Korea enigma

May 15, 2009

A former United States ambassador described negotiations with North Korea as filled of starts and stops.

Thomas Hubbard, former ambassador to the Republic of Korea, spoke on "The North Korean Enigma" during a visit to Indiana State University Tuesday (May 12). Hubbard served as an ambassador in Korea from 2001 to 2004 after previously serving concurrently as an ambassador to the Philippines and the Republic of Palau from 1996 to 2000. He served 39 years in the Foreign Service focusing on economic, political and military relations with East Asia. Hubbard currently works with McLarty Associates, a consulting firm on international political and economic risks, in Washington D.C.

During his talk, Hubbard focused on the North Korean nuclear threat and how the United States has negotiated through that during the past decades. In establishing the setting, he drew a comparison between his first visit to South Korea and his first visit to North Korea.

During the 1970s when Hubbard was stationed in Japan, he and his wife took the newly established car ferry from Shimonoseki, Japan, to Pusan, South Korea. As they drove on the newly built expressway from Pusan to Seoul, they encountered few other cars and looked out upon hills denuded by warfare.

When he returned in 1993, cars packed the expressway between the harbor city and the South Korean capital and the hillsides were once again verdant.

In 1994 after a helicopter strayed over the demilitarized zone and was shot down, he traveled to North Korea to negotiate for the release of a captured military serviceman and the body of a pilot.

"You could see no cars, hillsides are absolutely barren. Anything that breaks through the ground they either eat it or burn it," he said. "You still see ox carts going down the super highway."

It became hard to reconcile those images with those of North Korea posing a nuclear threat, he said. Yet almost since North Korea started its nuclear weapons program, the United States, South Korea, Japan and others have worked with the closed-off country to abandon its program.

In the middle of talks about denuclearization, intelligence reports began causing concern about North Korea's missile technology. Then in 1993 North Korea fired a medium range missile toward Japan.

"Missiles then became a significant issue," Hubbard said.

As negotiations continued, the intelligence community raised another concern of uranium enrichment by North Koreans. That led to the Bush administration formally abandoning the 1994 Agreed Framework in November 2003.

"At the time we thought they were more advanced than they were. It was the right thing to call them on it. It was the wrong thing to throw the baby out with the bathwater when we said they weren't keeping the agreement," Hubbard said.

North Koreans retaliated by kicking out monitors and by 2005 the country had produced enough nuclear material for six to eight nuclear weapons. In October 2006, the country successfully tested one in a small nuclear explosion.

Although under President George W. Bush, the United States took a hard-line stance toward the North Korea, Hubbard said the Bush administration did develop the six-party talks that included China, Japan and Russia and had a goal of the peaceful nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

"That was much better than bilateral talks," he said. "By the last year of the Bush administration we seemed to be moving toward disablement of the programs."

Then talks seemed to break down once again toward the end of 2008.

"They started not giving verification as needed. There were contrived and real misunderstandings," Hubbard said. "The North Koreans seemed to turn inward and to be walking away."

In April of this year, North Korea fired a long-range missile over Japan, reportedly to put a satellite in space. However, the missile and satellite went down into the Pacific Ocean.

Another issue concerns North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's ill health after a stroke about one year ago and the question of succession.

"He seems to be functioning but film clips show he's obviously a very sick man," he said.

The United States needs to continue negotiations and discussions with the North Koreans, the former ambassador said.

"Our interest is in drawing these people out; we need to stay engaged," Hubbard said.

Proliferation of nuclear technology seems to be the biggest risk, with North Korea building a reactor in Syria, which the Israelis destroyed.

"I don't think anybody thinks they'll use a nuclear weapon, but they'll sell them to someone else," Hubbard said.


Contact: Jacques Fuqua, Indiana State University, International Affairs Center executive director, at 812-237-4391 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or


Cutline: Thomas Hubbard, former ambassador to the Republic of Korea, spoke on "The North Korean Enigma" during a visit to Indiana State University Tuesday (May 12).


Story Highlights

Thomas Hubbard, former ambassador to the Republic of Korea, spoke on “The North Korean Enigma” during a visit to Indiana State University Tuesday (May 12).

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