Where in the world is Bill Richardson?
It’s a question I’ve pondered from time to time – both literally and figuratively – since the globe-trotting former governor exited the political stage six years ago. After writing last week about my Taos ski adventure with another former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson, I decided to catch up with Richardson by phone.
The former congressman, U.N. ambassador, U.S. energy secretary and presidential candidate, who served as Democratic governor of New Mexico from 2003 until 2011, has been keeping a fairly low profile in recent years. But during a half-hour conversation Wednesday, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Richardson is also keeping busy in international affairs.
Since founding the Santa Fe-based Richardson Center for Global Engagement after leaving the Governor’s Office, Richardson said, he has worked for the release of American political prisoners abroad, raised money for endangered chimpanzees and elephants in Africa and helped to train the next generation of political leaders in such places as Malaysia.
Richardson has a long history of helping Americans imprisoned in Third World countries, and he has become a go-to guy for anguished American families hoping to get their loved ones out of a dangerous international jam.
In February, the family of Fanta Jawara, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Frederick, Md., thanked the Richardson Center publicly for its help in securing her release from a three-year prison term in Gambia after she was arrested during an anti-government protest in that country last April.
After serving nearly a year of a prison term that reportedly included beatings, Jawara returned home to Maryland last month.
Richardson is also working on several other cases, including that of a similar – and seemingly more intractable – situation in North Korea.
You may remember the case of Otto Warmbier, a young man from Ohio who was arrested almost 15 months ago at the Pyongyang airport after visiting the country with a tour group. As he was preparing to fly out, Warmbier was arrested and charged with subversion for stealing a North Korean propaganda poster from a hotel wall.
The 22-year-old is, by most accounts, a well-liked – and believe it or not, smart – guy who made a very dumb mistake. His lapse in judgment resulted in a prison sentence of 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp.
Over the years, Richardson has traveled to North Korea multiple times as an ad hoc mediator on weapons and other issues, and he helped negotiate the release of another American imprisoned in the Communist country two decades ago. Richardson met with North Korea’s U.N. representatives in New York shortly before Warmbier was sentenced in January 2016, and he continues to work for the young Ohioan’s release.
“The problem for Otto is that this leader from North Korea is so unpredictable,” Richardson told me, referring to Kim Jong Un, the mercurial, short-tempered son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. “In the old days with his father, you could make a deal. Now, we’re kind of in a stalemate.
“He (Warmbier) is a bargaining chip, but it’s unclear what North Korea wants in return, and they have the whole Asian peninsula in turmoil,” Richardson said, adding that he is seeking meetings with North Korean officials in their country on the issue but hasn’t gotten an official green light yet.
“I think they are waiting for the Trump administration to make a move,” Richardson said. “I’ve been very critical of Trump’s foreign policy, but so far with North Korea he’s been cautious, he has not overreacted, is weighing his options, and I think that’s the right policy right now.
“But eventually we are going to have to engage North Korea in some capacity, either through China or a new set of six-party talks,” he added. “It’s going to involve a diplomatic deal of some kind. Maybe in exchange for stopping the missile tests, they get humanitarian assistance. We have to engage in a way that lessens tensions in the region.”
Some conservatives have suggested that the U.S. withhold its contributions to the U.N. Development Program that provides humanitarian assistance to help feed North Korea’s impoverished population. Richardson said that would be a cruel move.
“The only thing that goes to North Korea from the U.N. is the food program,” Richardson said. “Taking that away would hurt a lot of people in North Korea. A lot of the country is starving, and I don’t think that is a source of leverage. I think we should consider additional sanctions, but not taking money away from the food program. I think that would be a mistake.”
Richardson also reminded me of the high stakes for the U.S. in its long-standing conflict with North Korea, and the need for a cool-headed and deliberate strategy.
“We have to remember that we have 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and 50,000 troops in Japan,” he said. “We don’t want to have a human error cause a trip-wire effect that engages us there.”
UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Michael Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters to submit a letter to the editor.