War Stories

Mr. Richardson Goes to Pyongyang

Can a New Mexico Democrat make a deal with the North Koreans?

When North Koreans are ready to make a deal on a festering dispute, they often call on a middleman—which is why Bill Richardson’s little-noted trip to Pyongyang this week may signal an impending breakthrough in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.

When last we left those talks, the six powers signed a “joint statement” in which North Korea pledged to dismantle its nukes while, in exchange, the other five—the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—pledged to think about giving Pyongyang two light-water nuclear-power reactors.

The accord, initially hailed by some as a diplomatic triumph, quickly showed its seams as American officials whispered that they would never hand over reactors until after Kim Jong-il had completely disarmed—and North Koreans scoffed that they would never completely disarm until after the others had handed over the reactors.

A new round of talks was scheduled for November, but both sides seemed stuck at a classic impasse.

So, the North Koreans called in the middleman. But why did they choose Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico and a former United Nations ambassador in the Bill Clinton administration? And why did the Bush administration, which has tended to loathe all things Clinton-esque, lend Richardson and his entourage a U.S. Air Force plane to make the trip?

Many reporters asked similar questions back in January 2003, when a North Korean delegation traveled to Santa Fe and asked Richardson to pass a diplomatic message—a proposal for a disarmament deal—to President George W. Bush.

The previous October, U.S. intelligence agencies had discovered that the North Koreans were secretly enriching uranium. In reaction, Bush announced that the Agreed Framework—a disarmament accord that President Clinton had signed with Kim Jong-il in 1994—was dead. In reaction to that, the North Koreans pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, unlocked their 8,000 nuclear fuel rods (which had been kept under lock, key, and constant international monitoring for the previous nine years), and sent them off to a facility where they could be reprocessed into enough plutonium to build several nuclear bombs.

There is good reason to believe that, at that point, the North Koreans—who had been developing a nuclear-weapons program primarily as a bargaining chip—realized they’d gone a bridge too far. Certainly they initiated an intense round of diplomatic activity, proposing to lock the fuel rods back up if the United States gave North Korea a security guarantee and some economic assistance. But the White House was in no mood to talk or listen; Bush said that even to sit down with the North Koreans would “reward bad behavior” and be tantamount to “appeasement.”

So, the North Koreans went to Santa Fe and Richardson, in search of a middleman. In 1994, after a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down after crossing the DMZ, Richardson, then a congressman, negotiated the release of the pilot’s remains. (The pilot was a constituent.) In 1996, mainly because of that experience, he played a major role in hammering out the proposal for “Four-Party Talks” (involving the United States, North Korea, South Korea, and China) to settle the final disputes of the 1950-53 war. (The talks broke down after a North Korean submarine ran aground in South Korean waters.) That same year, he negotiated the release of an American peace activist who had been arrested as a spy after trying to swim across the Yalu River.

In short, they went to Richardson because they’d negotiated with him before. There was also, in their minds, a precedent for using someone like Richardson. In 1993, when the United States and North Korea were locked in a very similar nuclear crisis, they invited former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang for a sit-down with Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il’s father and the country’s first leader. (They liked Carter because, at one point during his presidency, he announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea—a move that he quickly retracted after much pressure from his own Cabinet and party. For an inside story on this, click here.) Carter and Kim worked out the basic elements of what became Clinton’s Agreed Framework. He did so, remarkably, without White House approval; Clinton and his Cabinet first learned of the deal by watching Carter announce it at a live press conference on CNN. But surely the North Koreans figured that Carter was acting on Clinton’s behalf. (It’s hard enough for most Americans to believe that a former president could act so independently under such circumstances; it would be unimaginable to North Koreans, who have lived all their lives under one-man rule.)

As Scott Snyder noted in his brilliant book Negotiating on the Edge, North Korean diplomats will not back down from even the most untenable position unless they can save face in the process. It’s reasonable speculation that the North Koreans saw the Carter mission as a sign that American presidents like to save face, too—and that one way they do this is to negotiate through a middleman.

And so in January 2003, they sought in Richardson a middleman they knew. They failed to understand, however, that Bush—still planning on “regime change” in all three spokes along the axis of evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea)—wasn’t remotely interested in a deal, much less in using a Democrat as its mediator.

Throughout Bush’s first term, Richardson maintained contact with the North Koreans, and he frequently—though quietly—briefed Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was alone among Cabinet secretaries in favoring further negotiations with Pyongyang. Yet unlike Carter, Richardson never went freelance, never presented himself as acting in any official capacity.

A few times in the past year, as the prospects for arms talks have soared and plummeted, the North Koreans have invited Richardson to visit, most recently in May, according to the governor’s spokesmen. Each time, the White House asked Richardson to decline (and he did). Then, suddenly, last Friday, Richardson announced that he was going to Pyongyang, at North Korea’s invitation, on an Air Force plane provided by President Bush.

He left on Saturday, Oct. 15, arrived in Pyongyang Oct. 17, is scheduled to stay until Thursday, Oct. 20, and will then travel briefly to Seoul and Tokyo, before heading back to Santa Fe.

“The object of the trip,” Richardson said in a released statement, “is to move the diplomatic process forward.”

He is also taking along experts in energy, agriculture, public health, and law—perhaps to hold out possible sources of aid and trade if the North Koreans agreed to dismantle their nuclear weapons program and dropped their quixotic insistence on light-water reactors. (South Korea has already offered them the same megawattage through conventional electric power lines.)

In his press statement, Richardson emphasized, “I am not an official envoy,” but will the North Koreans believe that? Should they? Should we? The fact that Bush denied previous requests for a visit but approved this one, even supplying official transportation, indicates at the very least that he endorses the mission, even that he considers it valuable.

Kim Jong-il needs a deal; his regime needs the economic and energy assistance, the security guarantees, and the diplomatic relations that an arms accord will bring him. George W. Bush needs a deal, too; his presidency needs the diplomatic triumph that he’s thus far been denied in Iraq and Iran. The conditions for an accord seem ripe. The procedural formula that was offered but denied way back in January 2003 has come around again full circle. If a deal can be had, it may well be Bill Richardson who puts it in motion. If the Richardson trip results in nothing, it may well be that no deal can be had.