Clinton rejects charges Hill mishandled N. Korea

WASHINGTON Mon Mar 16, 2009 7:47pm EDT

U.S. top nuclear envoy Christopher Hill attends U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's (not pictured) town-hall meeting with students from Tokyo University in Tokyo February 17, 2009. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

U.S. top nuclear envoy Christopher Hill attends U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's (not pictured) town-hall meeting with students from Tokyo University in Tokyo February 17, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday defended her choice for U.S. ambassador to Iraq, saying he made "lemonade out of some pretty bad lemons" in talks to end North Korea's nuclear programs.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans on March 25 to hold a hearing on Chris Hill's nomination, which is opposed by some Republican senators who fault his lack of Middle East experience and suggest he mismanaged talks with Pyongyang.

"Both of those criticisms are unjustified and unfounded," Clinton told reporters in response to the comments by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who last week urged Democratic President Barack Obama to reconsider the nomination.

Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, has also voiced misgivings about Hill, calling him "a poor choice" because he does not have extensive experience in the Arab world.

Clinton argued that John Negroponte, a former U.S. envoy to Iraq, deputy secretary of state and director of national intelligence, also lacked Middle East experience when he served in Baghdad but was backed by McCain, Graham and Brownback.

She said Hill did "a very good job" in fitful negotiations with five other nations to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

While North Korea agreed in 2005 to abandon its nuclear programs, it conducted a nuclear test in 2006 and more recently has refused to strike a written agreement on how to verify that it is giving up its nuclear efforts.

"It is our perspective that he made a lot of lemonade out of some pretty bad lemons, and he was able to get the North Koreans on record as agreeing to certain obligations," Clinton said. "We think he did a very good job."

Hill is due to meet McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, on Tuesday to try to win him over.

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