Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who has maintained contacts in North Korea since he served in the Clinton administration, called Wednesday for a shift in U.S. strategy toward seeking a compromise with North Korean officials during disarmament talks next week.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has had frequent communications with the North Koreans and warned that without a change in the status quo, North Korea could emerge as an outlaw state armed with as many as 10 nuclear weapons. In an interview on Wednesday, Richardson said that he had been in touch with North Korean officials in Pyongyang via telephone as recently as two weeks ago.
Richardson said the six-nation framework to disarm North Korea was "in danger of failing." He expressed concern that a deal on freezing the North Korean nuclear program might not be reached after five days of talks scheduled to start Monday in Beijing.
"That allows them to keep on building and building" nuclear weapons, he said. "If we don't reach an interim agreement to suspend the processing, they could have 10 nuclear weapons, and the talks may break down by this time next year."
The Bush administration has rejected any interim agreement with North Korea without an upfront commitment to dismantle its nuclear program. But Richardson has echoed the sentiments of leading analysts who have predicted that North Korea might hold out for an agreement until after the U.S. elections in November.
Richardson was in Seoul and Tokyo this week on trade missions and to speak on North Korean policy. He said that judging from his conversations with the North Koreans, it appears "unlikely" the North Korean government will immediately agree to U.S. demands for a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its weapons programs without any incentives.
Richardson called for a compromise, outlining a plan similar to one being floated by South Korea, for a verifiable suspension of North Korea's nuclear programs as a first step toward achieving disarmament. In exchange, he said, the United States should offer joint security assurances to the North along with the other participants at the talks -- China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. In addition, he said, the United States should endorse a South Korean plan to ship oil to North Korea to ease its energy shortage while a broader agreement is negotiated. As part of an interim step -- which China and Russia also appear to support -- North Korea should be pressed to allow weapons inspectors back into the country and to rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The North Korean government withdrew from the treaty last year.
The Bush administration's uncompromising approach to the crisis has generated mounting frustrations among some participants in the talks, particularly the Chinese and South Koreans, Richardson said.
"If you talk to the Chinese, they are especially growing frustrated by this process; they want to see results next week," he said. "If there is no clear progress, we don't know if the nations involved will stick with the framework" of six party talks.
Richardson has been flagged as a potential running mate for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate against Bush in November. Kerry has called for bilateral talks with the North Koreans -- an option Bush has rejected. Richardson, who said he intended to "remain governor of New Mexico," also called for "serious bilateral negotiations," but within the framework of the continuing six-nation talks.