- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

SANTA FE, N.M. — Gov. Bill Richardson said Wednesday that a meeting with a pair of representatives from the North Korean mission to the United Nations offered a “hopeful sign” of improving relations with the reclusive nation.

During a brief appearance before photographers and reporters at the New Mexico governor’s mansion, Mr. Richardson declined to comment on the substance of the talks or why the North Koreans had requested the meeting with him. It was the third time he has met with North Korean diplomats in Santa Fe since taking office as governor in 2003.

“Hopeful sign” was Mr. Richardson’s only response when asked whether the meeting indicated a thawing U.S. relations with North Korea.

Mr. Richardson was ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration and for years has served as a roving diplomatic troubleshooter, including missions to North Korea, Sudan, Cuba and Iraq.

He has traveled to North Korea several times, most recently in 2007 to recover the remains of American servicemen killed in the Korean War.

A spokesman for Mr. Richardson, Gilbert Gallegos, emphasized that the governor was not negotiating with the North Koreans or representing President Obama’s administration.

Mr. Richardson’s meeting with the diplomats came about two weeks after former President Bill Clinton went to North Korea and brought back two imprisoned American journalists.

Mr. Richardson told MSNBC that “the temperature has really cooled down in the relationship” with the North Koreans and that the former president’s visit had helped.

“I sense, with the North Koreans, they are now prepared to have a dialogue with us,” he said in the interview. “The issue then becomes, is it within the six-party talks or bilaterally, face to face, with U.S. officials and North Korean officials,” Mr. Richardson said.

The six-nation talks with the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea were aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program.

But North Korea pulled out of the talks in April and has sought one-on-one negotiations with Washington. The United States has said it’s open to talks with Pyongyang only as part of the six-nation discussions.

Among those meeting with Mr. Richardson was Minister Kim Myong Gil, who traveled to Santa Fe in 2006 to talk with him. That meeting led to Mr. Richardson’s trip to North Korea the following year.

The North Korean delegation had dinner with Mr. Richardson on Tuesday night and will be briefed Thursday on state government initiatives to encourage the production of renewable energy. Mr. Gallegos said the North Koreans had expressed interest in renewable energy programs.

Mr. Richardson will not be part of the energy briefings, Mr. Gallegos said, because he will be in Las Cruces for other events. However, the governor hopes to see the North Korean delegation briefly Thursday before they leave the state.

The diplomats’ next travels were unknown. The State Department OK’d an itinerary for the pair that includes Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, although it wasn’t clear whether they would visit the latter two cities.

The State Department must approve travel by North Korean diplomats posted to the United Nations any time they want to leave a 25-mile radius of New York.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly confirmed the travel request had been approved but refused to speak to specific destinations other than New Mexico.

Mr. Kelly said the administration had not asked Mr. Richardson to pass on any message to the diplomats and that there was no change to U.S. policy regarding North Korea and its aim to get the country back to six-nation disarmament talks.

Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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