Why we need talks with North Korea

Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 7:10 PM

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) ended a five-day visit to North Korea this week, trying to help defuse the crisis between Washington and Pyongyang ["North Korea makes gestures toward calm after South's drills," news story, Dec. 21]. He reported conciliatory gestures on the part of North Korea, but based on my experience eight years ago and what I see from the Obama administration, which apparently is not even interested in debriefing Mr. Richardson, the visit may have been for naught.

I visited North Korea in 2002 at the invitation of First Vice Minister Kim Gye Gwan - Mr. Richardson's host this week - with an indication that North Korea would respond to my suggestion that it return the USS Pueblo, seized in 1968. As I was about to leave for Pyongyang, the United States accused North Korea of developing a secret, second path to build nuclear weapons with highly enriched uranium.

During my visit, Kang Sok Ju, Kim Jong Il's top foreign policy adviser, delivered a written offer, in blind memo form, for talks with Washington. We were asked to carry it in secret to the White House. Deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley read the memo and immediately said, checking with no one, that direct talks would "reward bad behavior."

Michael Green, a tough National Security Council staffer in the Bush administration, says the Obama administration has been harder on North Korea than he and his colleagues were. But the need for direct talks outweighs any evil acts that the North Koreans may have perpetrated. I wish that President Obama and his advisers would recognize that and listen to the messages Bill Richardson brought back.

Donald Gregg, Armonk, N.Y.

The writer was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993 and made five trips to North Korea from 2002 to 2008.

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