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Richardson, White House Spar Over North Korea

By Michael Coleman
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Washington Bureau
    WASHINGTON— Gov. Bill Richardson fired back at White House press secretary Tony Snow on Tuesday, as the two engaged in a sharp war of words over North Korea.
    An obviously irritated Richardson accused Snow of getting his facts wrong and being "ungrateful" after Snow on Monday ridiculed Richardson's history of negotiating with North Korea.
    "Tony Snow doesn't let facts get in the way of a snappy quote," Richardson said in a lengthy written statement provided to the Journal on Tuesday.
    Richardson also contended that due to current policies, "the North Koreans are more dangerous than ever, and the region is more unstable."
    Snow told the press Monday that when Richardson traveled to North Korea as United Nations ambassador under President Clinton, he unsuccessfully wooed North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "with flowers and chocolates" to convince the isolated leader to give up his nuclear ambitions.
    "Bill Richardson went with flowers and chocolates, and he went with light-water nuclear reactors, and a basketball signed by Michael Jordan and many other inducements for the 'Dear Leader' to try to agree not to develop nuclear weapons, and it failed," Snow said during a briefing at the White House, according to a transcript. "We've learned from that mistake," he added.
    Richardson has traveled to North Korea five times— most recently as governor in October 2005 on a jet loaned to him by the Bush administration. In recent weeks, Richardson has strongly encouraged the White House to engage North Korea in direct talks, as opposed to the six-nation negotiations that Bush officials prefer.
    In his statement, Richardson said Snow was "trying to rewrite history, but as he was trying to be funny he got it wrong— Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brought the basketball and Ambassador Robert Gallucci worked on the light-water reactor issue."
    Richardson said his work in North Korea— first as a congressman, then as U.N. ambassador and even as governor of New Mexico— has yielded results.
    "I negotiated the release of a downed pilot and a political prisoner and handled a number of diplomatic chores for the administration," Richardson said. "And let's not forget that the president provided a plane for me last October so I could travel to Pyongyang to meet with the North Koreans, conversations that resulted in the North Korean delegation returning to the negotiating table.
    "This shows how ungrateful the administration is, despite the progress we were able to make during that visit," Richardson said.
    The Bush administration has repeatedly rejected the suggestion that it engage in formal bilateral discussions with Pyongyang. Snow said the established framework of six-nation talks involving North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia is more effective. Those talks have stalled since November.
    "One reason not to go bilateral with the North Koreans is what we're seeing now," Snow told reporters Monday. "You need to have concerted pressure, especially from those who have very close and ongoing ties with the government of North Korea, so that you can get results."
    Richardson urged direct talks in a Journal interview last week and again during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. On Tuesday, he said Bush's lack of direct engagement with North Korea has produced nothing but failure.
    "Under President Clinton, direct talks resulted in an agreement that kept North Korea from increasing its supply of enriched uranium and nuclear weapons," Richardson said in his statement. "Now, because of the policies of this administration, the North Koreans are more dangerous than ever, and the region is more unstable. They've apparently quadrupled their supply of enriched plutonium and now reportedly have as many as eight nuclear weapons."
    While criticizing the Clinton administration's approach to North Korea, Snow did give Clinton some credit for initiating a dialogue.
    Trying to "talk reason to the government of Pyongyang" was "at least a good-faith effort on the part of some very smart people," Snow said.
    Richardson said Bush should not dismiss the idea of direct talks through a skilled negotiator, such as Christopher Hill, the State Department's lead expert on North Korea.
    "He says talking with the North Koreans would send the wrong message and reward bad behavior," Richardson said of Bush. "If direct talks will get the North Koreans back to the table and move the process forward, we should do it.
    "Contrary to those who think it gives Kim Jong Il what he wants, direct talks would give the U.S. what it wants— getting the process moving to shut down the North Koreans nuclear weapons program," Richardson said.