Richardson in dialogue with N. Korean envoys

New Mexico governor, former Clinton official, odd go-between in crisis


SANTA FE, N.M. - As the confrontation between the United States and North Korea deepened yesterday, two North Korean diplomats spent the day here trying - through an intermediary, Gov. Bill Richardson - to explain what their country seeks from Washington in return for de-escalating its nuclear ambitions.

Although Richardson did not talk publicly, he was said to be in constant communication with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, as a divided administration sought an opening of dialogue with a government it has barely talked to during the past two years.

Richardson is an odd go-between, a Democrat who served in the Clinton Cabinet and is known and trusted by the North Koreans because of his past work as a member of Congress. That alone would make his task an awkward one. But his difficulties are made worse by the administration's inner divisions on whether to enter serious talks with North Korea before it dismantles its two nuclear programs.

Some officials have pressed for a greater openness to diplomatic talks; others have argued for an even harder line toward the North Koreans.

It was hard to tell whether progress was being made here, although it was announced that the talks would continue today. While Richardson remained behind closed doors yesterday at his official residence with the North Korean delegation in what his spokesman labeled "a very positive atmosphere," the North Korean ambassador at the United Nations in New York issued a vehement denunciation of American intentions.

But those comments seemed partly belied by the talks here.

In Washington, Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said several governments were conveying to North Korea, both publicly and privately, the need to dismantle its nuclear programs.

"We look to other governments to make clear to North Korea that they need to meet their obligations, that it's important to the entire international community," he said. "That's been made clear by individual governments, the Chinese and Russian governments included."

North Korea's initiative with Richardson took the administration by surprise, officials said, though there has been talk for weeks that a possible intermediary might emerge to help determine North Korea's intentions.

In the early 1990s, former President Jimmy Carter played that role for President Bill Clinton, who was said to have resented his predecessor's involvement, though he ended up grateful for the resulting agreement.

A Bush administration official recently held up his fingers and crossed them when it was suggested jokingly that Carter might be available again. Paradoxically, the administration is depending on a Clinton-era politician as a promising source of information on North Korea's intentions.

Asian and European diplomats said yesterday that it was uncertain which represented North Korea's true intentions: the denunciations made by Pak Gil Yon, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, or the more conciliatory talks going on here.

It is possible - even likely, some say - that North Korea is divided, not least because the United States has lurched back and forth from conciliation to confrontation during the past two years.

A positive sign came at lunchtime, when Richardson's spokesman said that instead of ending talks for the day, he and the two North Korean envoys, Han Song Ryol and Mun Jong Chol, had decided to reconvene in the late afternoon.

Han knew Richardson when the governor served as Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s.

"They've been very positive but very frank up to this point," said Billy Sparks, Richardson's communications director, adding that the governor had been in "constant touch" with Powell.

One more test of North Korea's intentions could come next week when it holds Cabinet-level talks with South Korea - the highest-level contacts since October, when North Korea acknowledged that it was maintaining a nuclear fuel enrichment program in violation of the 1994 accord.

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