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Slate's War Stories: Richardson Goes to N. Korea

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

With all the other news going on this week, you may not have noticed that New Mexico governor and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is in North Korea at the moment. He was invited by the government of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, and he went on a plane provided by the White House. In other words, this is more than just a sightseeing trip. To learn more, we turn to Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for the online magazine Slate.

Welcome back, Fred.

FRED KAPLAN (Slate): Thanks.

CHADWICK: You write that when the North Koreans wanted to make a deal, they often have called in a middleman. And what deal might they be wanting to make now?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, there are these six-party talks going on in Beijing--the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan--to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. North Korea wants something in exchange. Those talks are sort of stalled as of a month ago when they last adjourned. And if past is precedent--and, you know, it isn't always--but if it is this time, I think North Korea might be prepared to make a breakthrough on this.

CHADWICK: Why go to Bill Richardson for that breakthrough? He's a Democrat.

KAPLAN: Right.

CHADWICK: He's the governor of New Mexico.

KAPLAN: Well, you know, it's funny. When this current nuclear crisis began at the beginning of 2003, a North Korean delegation went to Santa Fe to see Richardson. They wanted to use Richardson as a middleman to get to Bush, who at the time was refusing to talk to North Korea at all because he was still interested in launching a campaign of regime change against, you might recall, the three spokes on the axis of evil: Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

And people wondered then, `Gee, why Richardson?' Well, back in the '90s, when Richardson was a congressman, he had a negotiation with the North Koreans. One of his constituents who was in the US Army was flying a helicopter, and he crossed over the DMZ accidentally, was shot down, killed and Richardson negotiated the returns of his remains. In '96, he played a pivotal role in some negotiations to settle some remaining issues of the 1950 to '53 war. And in that same year, he also negotiated the return of a US peace activist who was arrested on charges of espionage while he was trying to swim across the Yalu River. So this is someone that the North Koreans have dealt with, negotiated with, had a serious relation with.

CHADWICK: He doesn't speak Korean or have majored in Korean studies at the...

KAPLAN: No, I don't think--you know, he wasn't a UN ambassador, but no, I think it all stemmed from this initial experience of his negotiating to get one of his constituents back.

CHADWICK: Well, how does the Bush administration feel about this? He's not an official envoy in any sense, but they did lend him a plane.

KAPLAN: Right. Well, you know, if a congressman wants to go to a country like North Korea, they do clear it with the White House. And there have been a few times in the past, including as recently as last May, when President Bush asked Governor Richardson not to go. This is the first time that he said, `Yeah, go talk about it. Go see what you can find out.'

CHADWICK: In Slate, you write that a major part of what's going on may be about saving face, and not just on the North Korean side. What do you mean?

KAPLAN: The precedent of using middlemen started back in 1993 when there was a very similar nuclear crisis between Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung invited former President Jimmy Carter to come to North Korea, and they hammered out the basis of what became a nuclear accord that Clinton's people and Kim Il Sung's people signed. Now it wasn't known at the time, but Carter sort of did this on his own, but you know, I can't believe that the North Koreans thought that was the case. And I think, and others think, that they interpreted the whole mission of Clinton using Carter as a face-saving gesture, that Clinton couldn't get involved in direct negotiations, so he used Carter. That wasn't true, but it's very easy to imagine they're thinking that. So they thought the same thing about Richardson.

CHADWICK: And why save face now?

KAPLAN: Yeah. There's an impasse, and the talks are supposed to begin in November. There needs to be some preparation for the talks for a variety of reasons. The State Department emissary to the talks isn't able to go directly to Pyongyang for preliminary talks, so Richardson is being used as possibly a face-saving mediator for both sides.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for the online magazine Slate.

Fred, thank you again.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Back in a moment with more from DAY TO DAY,. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.