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Gov. Richardson in North Korea for talks

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is in North Korea  for talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear arms program.
/ Source: The Associated Press

North Korea’s pledge to give up its nuclear weapons program was a giant step forward in multilateral talks with the reclusive country, but now comes the time to implement the agreement, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Monday before arriving in North Korea for three days of negotiations.

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said he would push the North Koreans for specifics on how they plan to dismantle their weapons program and a commitment to allow outside verification of the process.

“It was a major step forward in the last six-party talks, and now is the follow-through,” Richardson told The Associated Press in an interview during a refueling stop at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. “Where I think I can help is in the implementation — I’m not there to negotiate anything new.”

Richardson said he also would urge North Korean officials to cooperate with humanitarian aid organizations and allow them to operate more freely in the country.

North Korea’s state-run news agency reported Monday evening that Richardson had arrived in Pyongyang.

The Democratic governor has been to North Korea several times before and has kept up ties with Pyongyang officials over the years. He was visiting Pyongyang at the request of North Korea.

‘Trying to be helpful’
Richardson, however, denied he was “an interloper,” saying he was fully supportive of the Bush administration’s policy of working with North Korea through the so-called six-party talks on its nuclear program.

“I’m trying to be helpful,” Richardson said. “I’ve kept up my dialogue with them at their request, I’ve had a long relationship with them and I want to take advantage of that relationship to help my country.”

Richardson was invited by the North Koreans in May but postponed his trip when Washington asked him to wait until the recent round of nuclear talks in Beijing was completed. The United States provided him and his entourage with an Air Force plane for the trip.

The Beijing talks ended last month with a commitment by North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, which Pyongyang claims has already yielded a weapon. The next round of talks, which also involves China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, was scheduled for November but no date has been set.

The governor was accompanied by public health, energy and other officials from his state. Richardson said he hoped their presence would show the North Koreans what kind of assistance they could expect in return for giving up nuclear weapons.

“The idea behind the experts is to say, look ... there will be advantages” to abandoning atomic bombs, he said.

Roving diplomat
Richardson said he did not expect to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, but he hopes to meet with Foreign Ministry and defense officials. The entourage was scheduled to stay in North Korea from Monday evening until Thursday, then travel to Japan and South Korea to brief officials. The group is scheduled to be back in New Mexico on Oct. 22.

Richardson developed a reputation as a roving diplomat when he served in Congress, traveling to Iraq, North Korea, Cuba and Sudan to win the freedom of captive Americans. Richardson left Congress to join the administration of former President Clinton as ambassador to the United Nations. He also was Energy Secretary.

For Richardson, considered a likely presidential contender in 2008, the trip offers a potential chance to display his foreign policy know-how. The governor, who is up for re-election next year, denied seeking advantage from the trip and said foreign policy should be beyond partisan politics.

Since his election as governor, Richardson has remained active in foreign affairs, appearing frequently on national television hosting international visitors, including officials from China, the two Koreas and Japan.