SANTA FE, N.M. – Within days of taking office in 2003, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson juggled his duties as the state’s new chief executive with another role he has long savored: diplomatic troubleshooter.
Richardson, a former congressman, U.N. ambassador and energy secretary during the Clinton administration, hosted three days of talks with visiting North Korean envoys that January. On Saturday, he was scheduled to leave on another diplomatic foray, traveling to North Korea at the invitation of the regime in Pyongyang.
The unofficial talks come at a critical juncture before formal six-country negotiations resume next month on efforts to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.
For Richardson, who’s considered a likely presidential contender in 2008, the trip offers a potential headline-grabbing opportunity to display his credentials to would-be voters across the country.
“It’s a good thing for Richardson. What other presidential candidate in the Democratic Party would be called upon by an administration in a nonpartisan way to represent American interests in a dangerous place?” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Richardson dismisses the talk of political advantage.
“When it’s national security issues, politics stops at the water’s edge,” he told reporters. “I want to be helpful as an American citizen. I have a long track record with the North Koreans, and I believe I can be helpful.”
A longtime foreign policy observer of North Korea agrees that Richardson can help advance U.S. interests.
“I think he’ll be smoking out what the first steps of a denuclearization process could be,” said Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
Harrison, who returned in April from a visit to North Korea, stressed that Richardson is no diplomatic freelancer.
Richardson has consulted with the State Department, including Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who is the chief negotiator in the disarmament talks with North Korea. The Bush administration is providing a plane for Richardson.
“It’s very valuable to the State Department to have what are called second track contacts with North Korea because they are more frank, and they’re not burdened by the official process,” Harrison said.
Richardson developed a reputation as a roving international Mr. Fix-it when he served in Congress. He traveled to Iraq, North Korea, Cuba and Sudan to gain the release of captive Americans.