- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

North Korea's No. 2 U.N. diplomat held talks in Santa Fe last night with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, himself a former U.N. ambassador with a history of dealings with Pyongyang.

The hastily arranged meeting was endorsed by the Bush administration.

Then, today, North Korea formally pulled out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and said it would not readmit U.N. inspector, but Pyongyang also said it would not produce nuclear weapons.

Mr. Richardson greeted the North Korean team outside the governor's mansion before stepping inside for what his spokesman described as a three-hour working dinner.

Han Song-ryol, deputy ambassador at North Korea's mission to the United Nations, flew from New York a day after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell informed Mr. Richardson of the administration's consent to the meeting. Mr. Powell also expressed hope for a response to Washington's offer for talks.

The White House said North Korea, not the United States, initiated the unusual diplomatic channel through Mr. Richardson, a Democrat and former Clinton administration energy secretary.

The Bush administration yesterday spelled out demands to North Korea. "The next step is for North Korea to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program," said Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman. Separately, a senior administration official said the White House wants North Korea's nuclear facilities at Yongbyon taken apart.

"I want to be able to help my country," Mr. Richardson, a Democrat who visited North Korea on a diplomatic mission in 1996 as a member of Congress, said yesterday. "I support the administration's policy. I'm not an official negotiator. The administration has many channels that they are pursuing with the North Koreans."

He said another meeting with Mr. Han has been scheduled for today.

The governor walked the delegation out of the governor's mansion after what his spokesman described as a working dinner.

The North Koreans left in a white sports utility vehicle, with neither them nor Mr. Richardson commenting to reporters.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, declared today its immediate withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its official Korean Central News Agency said.

"The government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in a statement today declared its withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and its total freedom from the binding force of the safeguards accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)," KCNA said.

North Korea also rejected an IAEA demand this week that it readmit agency monitors who were expelled on New Year's Eve.

But the North also pledged that despite its latest moves, it had no intention of producing nuclear weapons.

"Though we pull out of the NPT, we have no intention to produce nuclear weapons and our nuclear activities at this stage will be confined only to peaceful purposes such as the production of electricity."

Mr. Powell approved the request later that day. In his conversation with Mr. Richardson, Mr. Powell made clear that the governor understood Washington's position and would convey it correctly to the North Koreans, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters yesterday.

Both Mr. Boucher and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer insisted that Mr. Richardson was not acting as a government representative in the meetings.

"We'll see what they have to communicate to Governor Richardson or to some other person that they're talking to, including the internationals," Mr. Boucher said. "If it is a more thought-out response, if it does indicate that they are prepared to promptly and verifiably dismantle their nuclear enrichment program, then it would be interesting."

A senior State Department official later said, "We understand they may have a message" in response to Washington's statement on Tuesday that it is "willing to talk to North Korea about how it will meet its obligations to the international community" and abandon its nuclear pursuits.

Pyongyang's request for the Santa Fe meeting, coming only a day after the statement, was the first sign that it is ready to discuss the future of its nuclear programs.

The reclusive regime of President Kim Jong-il admitted in early October that it had a secret uranium-enrichment program. North Korea said last month, after the United States suspended free shipments of heavy fuel oil, that it would reopen the 5-megawatt Yongbyon nuclear reactor closed under a 1994 pact. It has since expelled U.N. inspectors stationed at the plant and removed monitoring equipment.

Pyongyang has been demanding a nonaggression pact with Washington for months, only to be rebuffed by the Bush administration. However, since the statement seen as an indication of a softening stance Mr. Powell has hinted that some kind of a formal security assurance may be possible.

The Reuters news agency yesterday quoted a "diplomatic source with close ties to Pyongyang" as saying in Tokyo that the North would agree to abandon its nuclear ambitions if the United States "reaffirms" a 2000 joint communique signed by the Clinton administration. The communique said that the two nations had "no hostile intent" toward each other.

That document paved the way for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's trip to Pyongyang less than three months before she and President Clinton left office.

Mr. Boucher, who as Mrs. Albright's spokesman accompanied her to North Korea, declined to comment on the Reuters report or to say whether the Bush administration was willing to stand by the communique. But he said Washington has "no aggressive intent," which he noted was no different from "hostile intent."

"It's all the same thing," he said. "It all reflects the general attitude on the part of the United States."

Although President Bush has reiterated in the past several days that he has no intention of attacking the North, the state is still regarded by the administration as part of an "axis of evil," with Iraq and Iran.

U.S. officials said the North Koreans initiated the communication with Mr. Richardson, who has known Mr. Han awhile.

In 1994, the then-congressman helped win the release of a U.S. soldier whose helicopter had strayed into North Korea. Two years later, he negotiated the release of a 26-year-old American missionary who swam across a river from China and had been detained on spying charges.

He also undertook diplomatic missions in Sudan, Cuba and Iraq, winning the title "U.S. ambassador to rogue states."

Mr. Richardson took over the U.N. post from Mrs. Albright in 1997, after she received the top State Department job. He was later appointed energy secretary by Mr. Clinton, heading the department in charge of U.S. nuclear policy. He also was said to have been on Al Gore's running-mate list in 2000.

Even though other former U.S. officials, many of them Democrats, have negotiated with the North Koreans before, Mr. Richardson never did it as a government interlocutor, said Wendy Sherman, North Korea policy coordinator in the Clinton administration.

Earlier this month, Mr. Richardson was sworn in as governor of New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb and home state of the U.S. nuclear industry.

Mr. Fleischer said that he expected Mr. Richardson to stick to the administration's line in his meetings with the North Koreans.

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