In an unexpected overture, North Korean envoys met in Santa Fe last night with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a diplomatic troubleshooter for President Bill Clinton.
Richardson and two North Korean officials held what was described as a working dinner in the governor's mansion. Neither Richardson nor the North Koreans made any comments to reporters after the session. They were to meet again today.
Officials believe the North Koreans would deliver a message in response to the administration's announcement Tuesday that it was willing to hold direct talks with the government in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Pak Gil-Yon, contacted Richardson shortly after the Tuesday announcement.
North Korean envoys are not permitted to travel beyond a 25-mile radius of Columbus Circle in New York unless they receive permission from the State Department. Han Song-ryol, the deputy U.N. ambassador who is the key North Korean for handling Washington-Pyongyang relations, applied for permission Wednesday to go to Santa Fe. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell quickly approved the request.
Richardson, the former U.N. ambassador who negotiated with dictators such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, was closely involved in the Clinton's administration's efforts to forge a closer relationship with North Korea, an approach that President Bush rejected upon taking office. But the Bush administration has scrambled to ease tensions that have risen since Pyongyang's disclosure in October that it had a secret weapons program and its subsequent decision to restart a plutonium facility.
Since October, the United States has held frequent indirect talks with Pyongyang, and officials viewed the latest approach by North Korea as part of that unofficial communication.
Richardson "was given to understand they would have a message," a senior U.S. official said. Richardson is "one of the people they are comfortable talking with," he said, adding that "it's not what channel they choose to speak to but what they have to say."
U.S. officials emphasized that Richardson is not acting as an envoy or a negotiator and plans to convey the administration's position that it will not negotiate a new weapons agreement.
Speaking before North Korea announced last night its withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Donald P. Gregg, who is president of the Korea Society in New York, said he perceived a significant shift in tone this week. "I think we are about to turn a corner with North Korea," he said. "I am feeling infinitely better than I did 72 hours ago."
Gregg met with North Korean officials in Pyongyang in early November, and reported back to the White House and the State Department on his discussions. He said the message he delivered from the North Koreans was: "If you sign a nonaggression treaty with us, we will end all your concerns about nuclear activity."
President Bush and other senior officials have repeatedly stressed they have "no hostile intent" toward North Korea. But in an interview Wednesday, Powell held out the prospect of a settlement of the dispute that would include a formal assurance that the United States had no plans to attack North Korea.
U.S. officials have also pressed key nations in the region -- China, Russia, South Korea and Japan -- to take a more active role in easing the crisis. Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said yesterday that Russia needs to "get past the denial stage" about North Korea's nuclear activities and persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to "climb down."