Gov. Bill Richardson's Take On North Korea

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson recently traveled to North Korea in an attempt to defuse tensions in the region after last month's deadly artillery attack by the North on a South Korean island. Host Steve Inskeep talks to Richardson, who now wants President Obama's administration to consider formal talks at an anxious time.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

An unofficial American visitor to North Korea says he detected signs of flexibility there, which is a little surprising, given recent news. North Korea was accused of sinking a South Korean ship in March. Then, North Korean artillery hammered a South Korean island in November.

But in recent days, Bill Richardson traveled to North Korea. He's a former diplomat and the governor of New Mexico. He accepted an invitation to go. Now he wants President Obama's administration to consider formal talks in an anxious time.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): The state of tension is incredible. I was in North Korea for four days, and everybody has a bunker mentality. But the good news is that I believe the North Koreans are starting to move in the direction of toning down their actions by giving me some arms control initiatives, like some monitors for the nuclear weapons site, an agreement to sell their new fuel rods or spent fuel rods to South Korea, a hotline between the North and South militaries. So I think they want to change a bit.

They know they've gone too far into the precipice by shooting those civilians on that island, by sinking that ship, by making announcements of increased nuclear weapons capacity. I think maybe they're pulling back. That's my hope.

INSKEEP: Although let's look at some developments in the last couple of days, just so that we understand what's going on here. In response to some of those provocations you mentioned, the South did military exercises. The North did not respond in some way or attack in some way, and yet North Korean officials then put out a statement referring to sacred war at any moment necessary, which got people nervous again.

Gov. RICHARDSON: Well, the North Koreans have very heated rhetoric. You've got to differentiate between their news agency, the Pyongyang New Agency that puts out these very heated, war-like comments almost all the time. And their officials, when you meet with them, they're much more pragmatic, much more subdued. But it does cause enormous alarm.

These South Korean exercises, they're pretty routine. They're naval drills. But I think it's important that we recognize that this is a tinder box. We've got 27,000 American troops on the DMZ. What we don't need is a miscalculation by some of these drills. So it's best, I think, to inject some kind of diplomacy into the situation.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned that officials in North Korea have seemed more pragmatic when you have met with them. I wonder from this last visit if you could describe one of your meetings, perhaps one of the most illuminating meetings, if one of them seemed that way to you.

Gov. RICHARDSON: I met with a chief military guy for the armistice, a General Pak. The guy seemed pragmatic. I said the worst thing you can do is a military provocation. Let it be. It's a routine drill. You have been very negative with the shooting civilians, with sinking the ship. You know, there's always tit for tat on these situations. And he seemed to listen. This is a new guy, a younger military leader that has taken over the reins of the Korean People's Army.

Look, I'm not saying these are good guys. I'm not saying these are peace-loving people. But I sense more of a pragmatism, and I just think we should take advantage of it - not just the U.S., but the six-party nations, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and try some kind of engagement. Make them earn this engagement. Make them take those steps they promised me, but don't just keep isolating them. I know these guys, and I just did detect a little move towards the center, towards reality, and I just want us to take advantage of it - us, being the international community.

INSKEEP: Now the Obama administration has said they don't want to reward the North Korean provocations with a return to these six-party talks. It sounds like you're urging the administration to go ahead and talk, anyway.

Gov. RICHARDSON: Well, I believe the Obama people are taking the right tact. You're right. You don't want to reward them unless they do something. They've been provoking, but I think since the recent incident, they held back and didn't retaliate. They've offered these arms control concessions.

Let's test them to see how real this is. And if they do appear to be moving towards peaceful means improving their behavior, let's get some framework for negotiating - the six-party talks, perhaps.

INSKEEP: Well, what assurance would you have that you would not just be starting another one of these cycles where the North Koreans talk to the Americans and to U.S. allies and other countries in the region, they make some kind of agreement, and then the agreement is violated, or the North just begins entirely new provocations later on?

Gov. RICHARDSON: Look, there's no assurances about this country. They don't think like us. They're not quid pro quo-oriented. They're convinced they are right, but they're so isolated, they get no news from the outside. They don't travel. The place is economically in terrible shape. You know, people are hurting, some are starving. I believe that they've recognized, the leadership, that they can't continue like this, and that maybe this is the time to change.

INSKEEP: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is back from a visit to North Korea. He was in the governor's mansion, in a room with packing boxes as he prepares to leave office.

Governor Richardson has a decision to make first, by the way. He's considering a posthumous pardon for the 19th century outlaw Billy the Kid. And Richardson says he's still thinking about it.

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