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N.M. Governor Says N. Korea Ready to Negotiate Despite Rhetoric

Despite its bellicose rhetoric, North Korea is ready to negotiate directly with the United States about its nuclear weapons programs, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Sunday.

Talk of a "holy war" against America and other menacing statements mask a desire to start a dialogue with the Bush administration, said Richardson, who on Saturday completed three days of talks in Santa Fe, N.M., with North Koreans diplomats.

The former U.N. ambassador, who reported on the meetings to Secretary of State Colin Powell, thinks talks could start soon.

"They don't negotiate like we do. They don't have our same mentality," Richardson told ABC's "This Week."

"They believe in order to get something they have to lay out additional cards, step up the rhetoric, be more belligerent."

The administration has made overtures to hold direct talks with North Korean officials, ruling out concessions but saying there were no other restrictions.

Richardson suggested a bilateral nonaggression binding pact that says the United States will not attack North Korea, in exchange for steps such as freezing its nuclear program and allowing international inspectors back into the country.

"The North Koreans said they're ready to do that, but only after a negotiation," Richardson said.

But Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was reluctant to have the United States make an immediate commitment to a security guarantee.

"I don't know that anything needs to be signed at this point. I think that ought to be the subject of discussions," Daschle, D-S.D. "I don't think we ought to commit to anything until we are absolutely confident that they are going to dismantle that nuclear assembly line."

The communist country withdrew from the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last week. It also threatened to resume long-range missile tests and to begin reprocessing spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor to make atomic bombs.

But Richardson cited assurances he received that North Korea was not going to build nuclear weapons and was ready to negotiate the verification of some of their nuclear programs.

"So what I think the administration needs to do, with all due respect, is just pick up the phone, start the preliminary talks at the U.N. in New York at a low level to set up broader talks that address these issues," Richardson said.

He thinks the Bush administration will take steps soon to start those low-level technical discussions "that would lead to more substantive talks at higher levels."

Also urging diplomatic steps was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "We're not at a crisis level, we're at a serious level," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly arrived in South Korea on Sunday to meet President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who believes diplomacy is the only solution. Kelly also planned to meet with other South Korean officials, and stop in China, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan.

What North Korea probably wants in discussions is food assistance and investment from Western countries. The Democratic governor said the country's only bargaining chips are its nuclear weapons, uranium reprocessing facilities and the 1.5 million troops on the border it shares with South Korea.

"So they use those cards to get what they want," Richardson said. "They also have a mind-set that they demand international respect. They want to deal directly with the United States, not with South Korea. They want to be considered big, major powers."

That does not mean the United States should give in to North Korean demands, he said.

But, he added, "We do have to recognize that this is a nuclear power, that it's in our national interest to talk to them, to ease tensions in Asia, to have South Korea, our strong ally, not in the cusp of an invasion."