MARGARET WARNER: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is no stranger to North Korea. The former U.N. ambassador visited the isolated country several times as a congressman during the 1990's to negotiate the release of missing the release of missing Americans or their remains. Last week he was there again in an unofficial capacity. And as he left last Friday, he predicted Pyongyang would return to the six-nation talks with the U.S. and others over its nuclear program. Today, the North Koreans announced they would. Gov. Richardson joins us now.
MARGARET WARNER: And, welcome Governor.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's start first of all with your view of how significant this announcement is today, the North Koreans saying they will return to the talks early next month?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, it is significant because it means that they are returning to the talks unconditionally.
Frequently the North Koreans play around with the dates. This time they committed to me that they would come and fully participate, that they would abide by the statement of principles which basically calls for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula; that they would rejoin the nonproliferation treaty, have a safeguards again, but at the same time, indicating that there had to be in the communiqué of the statement of the principles words for words, actions for actions.
It shows that they want to go into the talks, I believe in a constructive way. Admittedly the rhetoric is going to be very bombastic, very strong, but they are returning to the talks. And that's a very good sign.
MARGARET WARNER: So based on your conversations, do you believe that they have truly made the decision to dismantle the program versus the opposite view which some hardliners here hold, which is they are really just stalling for time; there are no inspectors there in North Korea and they are continuing to work on their weapons program?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, with the North Koreans you can't predict anything certain. But I was encouraged, for instance, they did allow me to see their nuclear reactor in Yongbyon where I saw a five megawatt reactor. I saw the reprocessing be shifted from that reactor to another place. That was a show, I believe, of transparency.
Now again, I do believe they've made that commitment to dismantle their nuclear weapons in exchange for basically wanting the six-party nations to guarantee their security, no attacks, substantial amounts of fuel and energy and other economic assistance.
But again, the light water reactor issue, they maintain that they need a light water reactor as part of their dismantling, and that, I believe, is going to be what settles this issue. I don't believe that the settlement will come at the next round of six-party talks. But I do believe they're sincere.
They were trying to send a message that they are ready to negotiate. Are they going to be caving in immediately to the other five countries demands? I'm not sure. But at least I believe that the Bush administration has made a strategic decision to negotiate, to engage the North Koreans, to do it through diplomacy, through this statement of principles, which I believe is in everybody's interest.
MARGARET WARNER: You have been talking to the North Koreans for more than ten years off and on. What is it like to talk with them? How do you know if they are leveling with you? And was it any different this time?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, I noted on this trip a lot less hostility. I noticed around Pyongyang and the rural areas that we visited the vitriolic anti-American signs weren't there. They seemed to be for the first time respecting the American negotiators had that they have to deal with. Sure, there is a lot of mutual distrust, suspicion. But I found that being a marked change from the past.
Secondly, I do believe they've made a fundamental decision that it is in their interest to rejoin the international community or to join it for the first time, to not be so isolated. They know they have to rebuild their economy. They know they've got to find a way to feed their people, many that are starving. But at the same time, they realize that the nuclear weapons card is their only card. And so they use it strategically to advance their interests.
MARGARET WARNER: But I mean --
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: I do believe --.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. But what happened or what did they say, was there anything you can point to on this trip that persuaded you of that? I mean why is it any different than eight years ago when their people were also starving?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Because I believe number one that they've made a fundamental decision that they've got to coexist with the five countries surrounding them. When China, when Japan, when South Korea, the main countries that basically feed them, give them international assistance, and the fact that they want a strategic relationship with the United States has convinced them that this is the best path for them.
Now that doesn't mean they're not going to be difficult. That doesn't mean that there is going to be a substantial disagreement on the sequencing of when you dismantle and when you rejoin the nonproliferation talks.
I do believe another positive sign; they reversed themselves on economic and U.N. assistance to a lot of nongovernmental groups, to the World Food Program. They had basically said we're throwing these people out. And I came in and pushed them hard and said this is ludicrous. You are hurting yourselves. And they reversed themselves and it now looks like the humanitarian groups that were about to be expelled can now stay perhaps in a reduced number.
MARGARET WARNER: You've mentioned two issues that have been the old stumbling blocks: One is their insistence in having a light water reactor, civilian reactor with international help, and the other is what you called sequencing which is sort of who goes first.
Did you hear anything new on that, anything that you could convey to the -- U.S. negotiators going into the next round of talks?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, first on the light water reactor, I did notice some flexibility and secondly that this I don't think is a deal breaker issue for them. Specifically, the North Koreans said that they would be prepared to allow the United States to either co-manage the reactor or to participate in the fuel cycle on the front end and back end, basically controlling the reactor, or having the five-party or six-party countries participate in the management. They seem quite flexible.
Now on the sequencing, this is the big issue and I believe that it may take more than the next session to get this achieved. I do believe you have to be very strong in laying out benchmarks on how quickly and when the North Koreans dismantle or -- the Yongbyon reactor, when they rejoin the nonproliferation treaty and invite inspectors back, like Mohammed ElBaradei, for high level inspections. And then we have to figure out a verification effort that is new, that is very strong, that is very foolproof because in the past, they have cheated. And it's important that they recognize that this agreement has to be totally foolproof if it's going to work.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that the Bush administration on the U.S. part has to be willing to give more or give more sooner than they have indicated at this point that they are?
Well, I have been encouraged by Secretary Rice and her new team. They have been, I believe, realistic at pursuing negotiations like Colin Powell did based on diplomacy, based on the statement of principles, which I believe the fact that the North Koreans agreed to it, which denuclearizes the peninsula which dismantles their weapons is an excellent place to start. This last session they had made more progress than many other times before.
You now have to be flexible. I believe we now have to show to the North Koreans that the sequencing is something that we can work with, that the light water reactor, which I don't think is a deal breaker for them, something that can be managed in a way that there are guarantees that the North Koreans under no circumstances can use that facility for other than civilian totally peaceful purposes.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally very, very briefly, why do you think they invited you?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: They know me, in the past in the last two years I passed on messages back and forth to Secretary Powell. They trust me. I don't know if that is something I want to advertise or brag about. But I think with the North Koreans, they're different. They negotiate differently. You have to show a degree of understanding and respect for their position while totally disagreeing with them on the way they behave internationally, the way they treat their citizens. And I believe it's a matter of trusting each other. And that is what we did.
MARGARET WARNER: Gov. Richardson, thanks so much for being with us.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Thank you.