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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, character matters - to George Washington. But first, after years of standoff, delay and acrimony, North Korea agreed this week to close down its nuclear weapons program. Now, in exchange North Korea will get $400 million of fuel, oil and electricity. President Bush defended the agreement as an important step in the right direction. But the deal, which came in six-party talks in Beijing that included the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, has been attacked from the right as too little and the left as too late. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who was the lead U.S. negotiator, joins us from his office in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Hill, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HILL (Assistant Secretary of State): Sure thing.

SIMON: Now, haven't the North Koreans agreed to shut down their nuclear program before? What makes this agreement different?

Mr. HILL: Well, what they agreed to do in September '05 was to give up all their nuclear weapons and nuclear programs. What we've gotten in this past week is more than a statement of principles, it's actually implementation. Meaning that in the next 60 days, they are required to shut down this Yongbyon reactor that's producing the plutonium, to seal it, to bring international inspectors in to monitor that. Secondly, they've also agreed, and this is important for us, is to start discussion to put together the list of all the other nuclear programs that they're going to have to get rid of pursuant to the September '05 agreement. So I want to emphasize, this is a fist step. We've got many more steps to go. But this is the first time we've really got some concrete implementation of the agreement.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the criticism that has come up in the past couple of days. First, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton has criticized the agreement in very strong terms, saying that he thinks it's essentially rewarding a nuclear proliferating power. Wall Street Journal referred it to as faith-based non-proliferation.

Mr. HILL: What I would say is there are a number of steps and, you know, we have to see how we do. I wouldn't call it faith-based in that sense because this is fairly short-term stuff, and if the North Koreans want to walk away from this, an important point is they're not just walking away from us, they're walking away from all of their neighbors. And most importantly, they're walking away from China. And I think for China it's a pretty important foreign policy objective to make sure this stuff all happens.

SIMON: Now, let me ask you about criticism from the left and people who complain that this agreement could have been accomplished several years ago before all the acrimony.

Mr. HILL: Look, I think it's important for people to understand that there have been previous efforts at denuclearization. People have worked very, very hard through those processes, but these were different deals at a different time.

SIMON: Ambassador Hill, by promising all these millions of dollars of fuel, oil and electricity, is the United States and other nations essentially agreeing to prop up one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world?

Mr. HILL: First of all, I think, you know, there has to be some basic humanitarian sense of people needing some heat and people needing some humanitarian aid. And I would argue the problem has been not that there's too much of that, but rather that there's been too little of that. So I don't consider that propping up the regime as such. I mean we have made it very clear to the North Koreans that if they want to get into the international community as opposed to be isolated, part of the price of admission is to have your human rights record scrutinized, exposed to the rest of the world. So they're going to have to deal with this. Sooner or later they're going to have to deal with this.

SIMON: How is this different from the agreement that was reached in the Clinton administration?

Mr. HILL: Well, it was not multilateral. It did not have China as a guarantor. But you know, agreements are the result of tough negotiations, where you sit down with the other side and everything you say, they take the opposite side. And as someone who has been involved in this stuff, I am not one ever to criticize someone else who's doing it, because believe me, it is a pain in the neck.

SIMON: Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who was lead U.S. negotiator for the accord reached this week over North Korea's nuclear program. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. HILL: Thank you.

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