New Mexico Gov. Richardson to Showcase Diplomacy in Meeting North Korean Officials

Gov. Bill Richardson's meeting with two North Korean officials will provide an opportunity for him to play a role he savors as well as showcase a skill in diplomacy that could boost any possible presidential bid.

Richardson was to meet privately with the diplomats Friday at the governor's mansion to discuss the upcoming six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The talks are set to begin Monday in Beijing.

The governor — a former congressman, U.N. ambassador and energy secretary during the Clinton administration — says the North Koreans requested the meeting with him.

There was a similar meeting at the mansion just after he took office in January 2003, and Richardson traveled to North Korea last October, his fifth trip to the communist-led country.

"The only governor with a foreign policy" is how Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, describes Richardson.

The Democratic governor, who was just re-elected to a second term, has remained active in foreign affairs and is considering running for president in 2008. He has said he would decide in January.

"If he's serious about a presidential candidacy ... it gives him bragging rights no other governor has," Sabato said. "Most other governors have no foreign policy or national security experience. Richardson has a great deal of both, and this is another indication of it."

North Korea walked away from the talks 13 months ago. The Pyongyang government of Kim Jong Il agreed in late October to resume the multilateral negotiations, involving the Koreas, the United States, Russia, Japan and China, three weeks after conducting an underground nuclear weapons test.

Richardson has said there is an opportunity to use diplomacy "to end this crisis and bring stability to the Korean Peninsula," and that he would press the North Koreans to start dismantling their nuclear weapons.

Richardson will not be acting as an official representative of the Bush administration at Friday's meeting.

"The North Koreans have always found it very useful to use the governor as a sounding board for their views" and seek his advice on their negotiating positions, said Richardson's Asian affairs adviser, K.A. "Tony" Namkung.

One of the two officials at Friday's meeting, Minister Kim Myong Gil, will continue on to the talks in Beijing, providing a bridge between what transpires Friday and what happens across the negotiating table, Namkung said.

Richardson acquired a reputation while in Congress as a roving troubleshooter, traveling to Iraq, North Korea, Cuba and Sudan to gain the release of captive Americans.

In September, he traveled to the Sudan and returned with Chicago Tribune journalist Paul Salopek, who had been held for more than a month on espionage charges.