MARGARET WARNER: And with me now from Santa Fe is New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. A former U.N. ambassador, he’s been to North Korea seven times over the past 16 years, to help free shot-down helicopter pilots, recover remains of American servicemen killed in the Korean War, and to promote nuclear disarmament on the peninsula.
And Governor, welcome. Thanks for joining us on this Christmas Eve.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D, New Mexico): Thank you, and merry Christmas to all of you.
MARGARET WARNER: And merry Christmas to you.
You’re one of the few Americans who actually has a history of meeting with North Korean officials on the ground there. What was the atmosphere of the talks this time? What was their attitude?
BILL RICHARDSON: Well, it was different than in other times in two ways. The first difference was, the state of tension in North Korea over the drills and in the entire peninsula was the highest and most negative
that I’d ever seen.
The second is that there’s a new corps of North Korean officials that I was dealing with in the foreign ministry, in the defense department, in – in the military, and I was encouraged because there was more of a
pragmatic streak in this corps of policy makers than I’ve seen in the past.
Yes, they always gave their standard lines, their propaganda, but when I suggested these initiatives that you mentioned, the inspectors, the sail of the fuel rods, hot lines, they were more open to talking about them,
because they knew that they’d really made some horrendous mistakes with the shelling of that South Korean ship, the killing of those sailors, the killing of the civilians on that island, their increased nuclear
activity. So I detected a little bit of pragmatism.
And then, finally, when I said, look, it – it makes no sense for you to retaliate militarily. This is a routine South Korean drill, and – and it makes sense that you send a message. You could send a big message by
simply not responding. So I see a little hope.
I agree that, you know, you got to see deeds and not words, that their credibility is not the best. But I just worry that the tension is so high, there is such a potential for miscalculation.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes.
BILL RICHARDSON: We’ve got 27,000 American troops there. So I worry a lot, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: What tells you that they realized they’ve made a mistake, as you put it? What – what do they say?
BILL RICHARDSON: Well, they realize – they didn’t actually respond to me when I said, look, you’ve made horrendous mistakes. They did (INAUDIBLE) –
MARGARET WARNER: They didn’t protest? They didn’t say, oh, no, it’s all the South’s fault?
BILL RICHARDSON: They – they weren’t as vehement as they used to be in the past. And my sense when I proposed those arms control initiatives, when I told them that they shouldn’t react militarily, that
they – that maybe it made an impact on them.
Look, I’m not taking credit for this. I’m simply saying that, maybe there’s an opportunity now, you just mentioned that the North Koreans and the South Koreans tensions have lessened a bit, a quiet day. You
know, maybe they’re not going to respond again.
Look, they had this huge rhetoric propaganda that they put out, nuclear weapons, that’s the public side. On the private side, this time in contrast to others that I visited, I sense a little more openness, pragmatism. But they got to prove themselves, they’ve got to show that they are serious.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now let’s look at one of these promises they made to you or assurances, the one about letting inspectors back in. Now, did they put conditions on that? Did they say what the situation would be? What – what do they have in mind?
BILL RICHARDSON: Well, it was my proposal, Margaret. What I said is, look, you expelled IAA inspectors. You got out of the nonproliferation treaty. A good step would be to permit IAEA inspectors to come in to Yongbyon facility to see that you’re not enriching uranium. That you’re not moving centrifuges. And they said we’d be prepared to do that, we want to call them monitors, not inspectors. But we’d be prepared to discuss that with the South in addition to selling – they’ve got about 12,000 spent fuel rods, fresh spent fuel rods that they are ready to sell.
Look, they have to be tested. I’m not saying they’re going to do this. But they acquiesced, they agreed to this. And hopefully some kind of mechanism, the U.N. envoy or six-party talks or diplomacy of some of
kind can push in that direction because you can’t keep having this tension on that peninsula. There’s too much of a potential for a powder keg, for a tinder box situation to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: But now, you know what people in the administration say, that of course North Korea wants six-party talks to resume or talks about the talks. And meanwhile, they’re going to continue their uranium enrichment and other. You know, they just showed off a new uranium enrichment plant to a Stanford scientist as you know. I think it was a month ago.
So, you know, the U.S. is saying, we can’t reward them for bad behavior. Why don’t they start behaving better and we might look in to this. What do you say to that?
BILL RICHARDSON: Well, I briefed administration officials yesterday, two different briefings, and obviously that was raised. And, look, I’m not necessarily disputing that. But if we continue to promote
policies that don’t lead us back to six-party talks, yes, they have to demonstrate some kind of movement, let’s give them a chance to do that.
But I think shutting the door – and I’m not saying the administration is doing that. There are different voices in the administration, some more pragmatic than others. I’m just saying the status quo right now is not good. There’s the most tension there’s ever been. You don’t want a miscalculation involving our allies, the South Koreans and the North Koreans. All I’m saying is there’s a little bit of an opening now. I detected that.
I’m the only one that talked to North Korean officials like in the last six months and I’m not perfect and I’m a citizen diplomat. I went there on my own, I was invited by the North Koreans and maybe they wanted to
send a message through me. Who knows? But I think the status quo is unacceptable, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly, before we go. Do you think any serious engagement is possible as long as this succession is taking place the one that Vice President Biden referred to or Kim Jong-Il wants to hand off to his son and they both want to look strong?
BILL RICHARDSON: Well, I do agree with the Vice President that they wanted to look strong and perhaps this is one of these very strong military actions have taken place. But I also sense that that transition is probably already taking place, although, I did detect in some low-level and mid-level bureaucrats that they’re not entirely pleased with that succession. They – they were questioning it, they’re not going to stop it.
But I think that has kind of happened already.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying -
BILL RICHARDSON: The transition is in place.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt you. Are you saying they said something negative about Kim Jong-Il’s son?
BILL RICHARDSON: Well, they didn’t directly say it. These were inside bar conversations, social conversations. They didn’t criticize him directly, but they – you know, there was a little uneasiness about
how the succession had taken place.
MARGARET WARNER: Right.
BILL RICHARDSON: A designation of this third son. Nobody knows much about him.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Governor Richardson, thank you so much.
BILL RICHARDSON: Thank you Margaret.