Q+A: Can Richardson win concessions from North Korea?

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (BestGrowthStock) – Bill Richardson, the governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico, is visiting North Korea, his latest trip to the isolated country aimed at reducing tensions in the region.

Tensions flared last month with the North’s deadly shelling of South Korean island and since then there have been reports that Pyongyang’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons could be higher than thought, sharply ratcheting up global risks.

On Friday, the North said it would strike at South Korea if Seoul goes ahead with planned live fire artillery drills on the disputed island.

While Richardson is one of a small group of Americans that Pyongyang feels comfortable talking to, it remains uncertain that he can help start a stalled dialogue aimed at fundamentally addressing the North’s threat to the region.

Following are some facts about him and what he can accomplish, if anything, on the five-day trip that began on Thursday.

WHO IS BILL RICHARDSON?

Richardson, who ends his two terms as governor this month, has been a Congressman, ran for president in 2008 and was President Bill Clinton’s energy secretary.

He has also been one of Washington’s “unofficial diplomats” and has visited North Korea at least half a dozen times.

He has intervened for the release of Red Cross workers in Sudan, travelled to North Korea to free an American accused of espionage and to Bangladesh to secure the pardon of a U.S. woman suspected of smuggling drugs.

WHAT CAN RICHARDSON ACCOMPLISH

Not much. North Korea appears to like making promises to “unofficial” visitors, but as soon as it comes to striking meaningful deals with governments it becomes much less enthusiastic. Richardson does not have the influence that China, the North’s main backer has, and even Beijing has struggled to rein in its reclusive ally, for example on missile tests.

In recent years, North Korea’s leadership appears less effective, or less willing, to take advantage of any goodwill generated by unofficial visitors to end the nuclear stalemate on the peninsula.

Bill Clinton last year travelled to Pyongyang to bring out two journalists who the North said entered the country illegally, but his visit did not led to fresh two-way dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington as had been anticipated.

Richardson, who does not have Clinton’s status or an official mandate from Washington, said he hoped to pass on a message from the North to Washington. But it is unlikely to prompt the United States, or South Korea and Japan, to change their positions that the North must first prove with actions it is serious about nuclear disarmament and to end aggression against the South.

For North Korea, the most important issues are the succession to leader Kim Jong-il by his son, Kim Jong-un and ensuring that he has the backing of the country’s military, which is its dominant force and leading political ideology.

Richardson simply does not weigh in an equation that has the succession of the world’s only communist dynasty at stake.

WHAT HAS BEEN HIS ROLE BETWEEN NORTH KOREA AND THE U.S.?

Besides working to win the release of American citizens, Richardson has had success in previous years acting as a bridge in an unofficial capacity to push forward nuclear disarmament talks with the North.

He was in Pyongyang in 1996 to work out a new set of nuclear talks when he was drawn into a hostage release mission. In early 2003, he hosted North Korean diplomats based at the United Nations at his governor’s mansion that led to the start of the now-stalled six-party talks that also involve the South, Japan, Russia and China.

That said, all of those agreements have been repudiated by Pyongyang which uses has used its nuclear threat to win economic and aid concessions in the past.

WHICH OTHER AMERICANS HAVE ACTED AS UNOFFICIAL ENVOYS?

Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang in 1994 and met the reclusive state’s founder Kim Il-sung to try to avert a crisis involving the North’s nuclear program which prompted President Bill Clinton to consider a military strike on the North.

Carter’s visit and personal pledges by Kim, one month before the North Korean leader died suddenly, led to renewed dialogue between the North and the South and between Pyongyang and Washington that led to the now-defunct Agreed Framework deal aimed at ending the North’s nuclear program in return for aid.

(Editing by David Chance and Sanjeev Miglani)

Q+A: Can Richardson win concessions from North Korea?