When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson ran for president in 2008, the former U.N. ambassador sold himself as the best candidate to fix America’s broken foreign policy.
As an occasional diplomatic troubleshooter for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Richardson liked to boast about his knack for negotiating with rogues and despots. “What can I say — bad guys like me,” Richardson would often joke on the campaign trail.
But it was more than just a punch line. During the past two decades, Richardson has secured diplomatic concessions from a slew of international “bad guys” ranging from Kim Jong Il to Fidel Castro to Saddam Hussein (also see “New Mexico’s Presidential Hopeful Dabbles in High-Level Diplomacy” in the March 2007 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Recently, the New Mexico governor was back at the negotiating table with the North Koreans — at their request. A North Korean delegation — representing the country’s United Nations mission and led by Minister Kim Myong Gil and Counselor Paek Jong Ho — spent two and a half days in Santa Fe from Aug. 19 to 21.
Richardson, in a lengthy interview with The Washington Diplomat a few weeks afterward, said the North Koreans asked to come to New Mexico shortly after former President Bill Clinton won the release of two American journalists who had been detained by the North Korean military for illegally crossing the country’s border while on assignment.
“They wanted to come and see me in New Mexico because they wanted to deliver a message,” Richardson said of the North Koreans. “The message was: They felt that the Clinton visit improved the atmosphere for the relationship, and that they would like to have bilateral talks with the United States.”
The State Department, moving in a new direction under President Obama, has signaled that it is, in fact, willing to meet directly with the North Koreans to discuss denuclearization, but only within the context of resuming Pyongyang’s six-party talks with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, in addition to the United States.
“We’ve made no decisions at this point, other than just to say we are prepared for a bilateral talk, if that will help advance the six-party process,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told the Telegraph newspaper in London in mid-September.
Crowley’s statement came shortly after a summer of conflicting signals from North Korea, which was slapped with tough U.N. sanctions after a nuclear weapons test in May. Tensions though appeared to ease when a reinvigorated Kim Jong Il seemed to make nice with the West by reaching out to Clinton, Richardson and the conservative government in South Korea. Then in a flash, hostilities resurfaced in early September when the enigmatic regime announced it was nearing capability to enrich uranium — in addition to plutonium — as a second means of developing a nuclear bomb in defiance of U.N. sanctions. What seemed like the very next day, Kim Jong Il mentioned to a Chinese diplomat that his government would be willing to discuss its nuclear program in “bilateral or multilateral” meetings.
Despite the mixed signals, some predictions can be made about the North’s intentions. Kim’s government often precipitates an international security crisis but, eventually, does an about-face to resolve it, usually in return for aid and other concessions. It’s also clear that Kim Jong Il has long harbored the goal of dealing directly with the United States, in part, experts speculate, to ensure the survival of his regime and at the same time to raise his international stature.
Richardson said Americans have nothing to fear from engaging North Korea one on one — and that doing so would neither sacrifice the six-party structure or reward “bad behavior,” as the Bush administration always argued.
“I think the two administrations should talk to each other,” Richardson said, “and I think a compromise can be reached where the administration doesn’t dismantle the six-party talks but North Korea can talk to the United States directly.”
At the same time, Richardson admits that the framework of previous six-party talks, in which the North Koreans agree to nuclear concessions in exchange for humanitarian aid, might not work anymore.
“There is going to have to be another formulation,” he said. “It’s going to involve some tough discussions. The North Koreans didn’t seem to be very interested in aid, in food.… I think they’re looking more at strategic decisions involving their role in Asia and their relationships in the region.”
Nevertheless, Richardson believes it’s important to honor the fundamentals of the six-party concept for the sake of including America’s biggest allies in the region, South Korea and Japan. “The U.S. needs to protect our allies who have a big stake in denuclearization and a big stake in stability in the peninsula. It’s important for us not to disregard our allies,” Richardson said, noting that he suspects the United States and North Korea would meet first and then “a few days later there are the six-party talks.”
Richardson is one of the rare U.S. officials with firsthand insight into the notorious hermit nation. In fact, his diplomatic relationship with the North Koreans dates back 15 years. In 1994, he helped free Bobby Hall, a U.S. military helicopter pilot who was shot from the sky after straying into North Korean airspace. Two years later, he negotiated the release of U.S. citizen Evan Hunziker, who was detained for three months under suspicion of espionage after he was caught swimming in the Yalu river.
The North Koreans’ latest visit to New Mexico marked the third time a delegation from the communist country has traveled to Santa Fe to meet with Richardson. The first meeting at the governor’s mansion in 2005 was dubbed “green chile diplomacy” by the local press in honor of the state’s beloved chili pepper.
Richardson himself has traveled to North Korea at least five times as a negotiator. The nuclear subject usually gets top billing — unless a U.S. hostage is in the mix. But the New Mexico governor has been unable convince the rogue regime to dismantle its plutonium program, though he has been credited with cooling down the rhetoric and convincing Pyongyang to at least return to the negotiating table.
“Over the years they’ve always come to me with messages,” Richardson said. “The first time they came to Santa Fe it was a message for the Bush people — ‘We’re ready to talk,’” he recalled. “The next time they came to Santa Fe they told me they wanted to turn over, as a gesture of goodwill, the remains of six of our soldiers from the Korean War.”
Richardson said he was happy to receive the North Koreans most recently, but he told them they had to first get State Department approval for the visit. Under current sanctions, North Korean diplomats cannot travel more than 25 miles outside of New York City without State Department agreement.
Richardson also called the State Department to inform them of the North Koreans’ intention to visit, making it clear to the North Koreans and the media that he was not acting as an official envoy of the United States. In retrospect, he called the meeting fruitful even if it didn’t yield any hard results.
“I think the meeting in Santa Fe was useful because the relationship for many, many months was literally frozen and in very bad shape,” he said. “I think the Santa Fe talks improved the atmosphere a little bit.”
It wasn’t all serious business though, Richardson said. The first evening involved a light dinner and cocktails. The next day, there were three hours of discussions at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe, a break for lunch and a little downtown sightseeing, and then three more hours of talks in the afternoon.
The governor also arranged for the delegation to meet with leaders in the Santa Fe environmental community who could speak about clean energy initiatives. The North Koreans were interested in utility-scale solar and wind power during a three-hour presentation at Santa Fe Community College.
“They led me to believe that they need to enhance their utility infrastructure and that they were looking at renewables as a possible way,” Randy Grissom, director of the college’s Sustainable Technologies Center, told the Associated Press. “They did seem quite interested in learning about alternative fuels.”
Richardson said he wanted the North Koreans’ visit to be about more than the stark issue of denuclearization. “It’s important in diplomacy that you start with soft diplomacy,” he said. “People to people.”
The governor admits that negotiating with the North Koreans is a test of patience, but that he has a genuine rapport with them and they trust him. “They feel comfortable venting with me,” he said. “Sometimes it’s useful to have these third-party, non-direct talks. They know I’ll listen to them, but that I’ll also be candid with them.”
He added that North Korea views itself “as a major power” and feels it deserves the respect and prestige that direct talks with the United States would bestow. “They want to be treated as a major power, but it’s very difficult to do that when their behavior is sometimes so bizarre.”
Nevertheless, Richardson said he hopes the Obama administration acts quickly to seize on what he describes as a window of thawed hostilities.
“I think it’s important that talks happen fairly soon,” he said. “Our objective should be to get them to stop developing nuclear weapons and exporting them. That takes some tough bargaining. I think we’re going to have to start fresh and if it means a bilateral meetings to get things going again, then I think we should do it.”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama raised some hackles among more hawkish Americans when he said diplomats should talk to adversaries such as Iran and North Korea without preconditions.
“It’s important we have discussions with countries like North Korea, Cuba and Iran without preconditions, but knowing that you don’t have a dialogue and talks without some purpose,” Richardson argues. “And of course, you recognize that you have to protect America’s interest.”
The governor also stressed that talking doesn’t show weakness — but not talking can result in a weakened position.
“Many times people assume that just because you talk to them you’re caving in and making a concession,” he said. “But many times when we talk to the North Koreans or Cubans, we are delivering a tough message that relieves some of the tension.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.