News / Asia

US Cautious about North Korean Commitments to Richardson

New Mexico State Governor Bill Richardson of the US (left) is welcomed by an unidentified North Korean official upon his arrival at Pyongyang Airport, Dec 16, 2010
New Mexico State Governor Bill Richardson of the US (left) is welcomed by an unidentified North Korean official upon his arrival at Pyongyang Airport, Dec 16, 2010

The United States took a cautious approach on Monday to North Korean nuclear and security concessions reportedly made to visiting New Mexico state governor Bill Richardson.  The State Department says it wants to see tangible steps to back up offers to the former U.S. cabinet official.

U.S. officials are relieved that Pyongyang did not follow through on its threats to respond violently to weekend military exercises by South Korea. But they say it remains to be seen whether conciliatory gestures to Richardson will be carried out.

The New Mexico governor, who has been a U.S. diplomatic troubleshooter several times over the years, helped defuse the confrontation between the two Koreas over the exercises, and said in Pyongyang that North Korea made additional offers to his team to ease tensions.

Richardson said he was told that North Korea is willing to give U.N. monitors access to its newly-disclosed uranium enrichment facility, set up a new "hot line" communications link with the South Korean military, and discuss the creation of a joint military commission with South Korea and the United States to prevent conflicts in disputed areas of the Yellow Sea.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley declined substantive comment on the offer, pending a briefing from Richardson. Crowley said North Korea "talks a great game" but that the real issue is what authorities there do.

"The big 'if' is 'if implemented,'" said Crowley. "We've seen a string of broken promises by North Korea going back many, many, years. As we've said all along, we'll be guided by what North Korea does, not by what North Korea says it might do under certain circumstances. Certainly, we want to see North Korea live up to its international obligations."

Crowley said that if Pyongyang wants to re-admit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who were expelled in 2009 and open up its nuclear facilities, it "certainly would be a positive step," but that the key is following through.

Although Richardson made the trip as a private citizen, a senior official here said U.S. officials were in telephone contact with him in Pyongyang during the hours leading up to North Korea's decision on Sunday not to retaliate after the South Korean exercises.

Before Sunday, Pyongyang had said it was ready to respond more fiercely to the off-shore exercise than it did when it shelled a South Korean island, killing four people, after a November 23rd South Korean live-fire drill.

Richardson met in Pyongyang with senior North Korean military and nuclear officials.  He said in a written statement that Pyongyang acted in a "statesmanlike manner" by not responding to the South Korean exercise.

Spokesman Crowley said the South Korean military had a right to exercise within its own borders and that there was no basis for a provocative response by Pyongyang.

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