By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
For a Democratic presidential candidate whose support in voter preference polls hovers around the margin of error, the announcement from the Bush White House yesterday was a gift: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) will co-head a private bipartisan delegation to North Korea next week to retrieve the remains of U.S. troops lost during the Korean War, receiving logistical support and technical expertise from the U.S. government.
Richardson, whose support among Democratic voters in five public opinion polls last week ranged from 1 to 4 percent, has staked his presidential bid in part on his days as a global troubleshooter for President Bill Clinton.
His presidential Web site proclaims that the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations "has been nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the release of hostages, American servicemen and political prisoners in North Korea, Iraq, and Cuba." (The site also says Richardson recently negotiated a 60-day cease-fire in Sudan's Darfur region after talks with rebel leaders and Sudan's president, but the violence has continued unabated.)
For that reason, the statement issued in the name of White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino caused much bipartisan head-scratching yesterday.
"Talk about retreating to a Clinton policy," said Republican political consultant Ed Rogers. "Next they will want Hillary to sponsor heath-care legislation," he said, referring to the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), and her ill-fated bid to overhaul health insurance as first lady. Rogers said he was puzzled about why President Bush would complain yesterday about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visiting Syria while praising Richardson for going to North Korea.
Over in the Democratic camp, former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart jabbed: "It says a lot that a president who for seven years wouldn't take advice from anyone, even his own dad, is now asking for help from someone who wants to take his job."
Administration officials deny political motives in issuing the statement but said they wanted to show support for a private mission put together by Richardson, who has visited North Korea before and has a standing invitation from the government in Pyongyang. The co-head of the delegation will be Anthony J. Principi, secretary of veterans affairs in Bush's first term.
In May 2005, the Pentagon, citing safety concerns, announced it had suspended cooperative field trips to North Korea by military personnel that over nine years had identified 225 probable U.S. remains. North Korean officials have promised to turn over more remains to the delegation, but U.S. officials would not speculate on the number. More than 8,100 U.S. servicemen are still listed as missing from the conflict half a century ago.
"There have been numbers batted around that are wildly divergent, so it is best to get the remains into the laboratory" before offering an estimate, said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.
Air Force Maj. David Smith, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the government will provide airlift for the delegation, which he said will include Victor Cha, the top Korea specialist on the National Security Council; James McDougal, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense; and an expert on personnel recovery. From April 8 to 11, the delegation will travel to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean officials and then fly to Seoul to go to the demilitarized zone to receive the remains, which will then be transferred to a laboratory in Hawaii.
U.S. officials said the Richardson trip is unrelated to the six-nation denuclearization talks, under which North Korea recently agreed to halt its nuclear reactor program. But Richardson's office quoted the governor as saying that he hopes the trip "will advance the progress made by the Bush administration during the six-party talks to dismantle nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula."