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Richardson: Release Shows N. Korea Is Ready For Dialogue

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The two Americans held prisoner in North Korea arrived in Washington State last night. When they got off the plane, their families were there to greet them. Kenneth Bae had been held in North Korea since 2012. He spoke briefly to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KENNETH BAE: Thank you for all of your support and prayer and your love. That has really been encouraging for me and for others that are wearing the same shoes.

MARTIN: Bill Richardson is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He has visited North Korea multiple times over the past two decades. I asked him what he knew about the release of these two men.

BILL RICHARDSON: I was aware something was happening, but the good news is that it's happened. I think two reasons - one is the North Koreans have felt a lot of pressure from countries at the United Nations, wanting international criminal court investigations. I think they wanted to send a message of a humanitarian release. And secondly, my sense is what they're doing is sending a message to the U.S. that they're ready to have a dialogue with us. They're ready to talk after all this tension. And apparently, the release was accomplished with hardly any conditions. The only condition being that an American cabinet-level member visit North Korea to bring him home.

MARTIN: That cabinet member was James Clapper, the director for National Intelligence. Negotiations for prisoner exchange is not something he's had a lot of experience in to my knowledge. Are you surprised that he was able to secure this deal?

RICHARDSON: Well, I was surprised because this is traditionally a negotiation that's either done by special envoys or by the State Department. The fact that the member of the intelligence community did the negotiations means there's a new channel.

MARTIN: You visited North Korea in 2013, most recently, with a delegation of business leaders. And at the time, you also sought the release of Kenneth Bae. That effort wasn't successful. Why, in retrospect, do you think it didn't work?

RICHARDSON: Well, there was a very high level of tension at the time. And we were not acting in an official capacity. Kim Jong-un, the new leader, was just coming into power. And so he was uncertain about a lot of these issues. The good news in this release is that he authorized what happened. There's no way a decision like this would have happened without Kim Jong-un. And that's a good sign. It means he wants to have a dialogue.

And secondly, what I believe it is important about this is that maybe the North Koreans have realized that all of this harsh rhetoric, shooting missiles, nuclear detonations tension has not worked. They still need food, fuel. They're desperately poor. And maybe this means they're ready to engage in a dialogue with South Korea, with us, with China. Where in exchange for them reducing their nuclear weapons and their arsenal, they get some kind of food and energy assistance, sanctions relief. It could be a little bit of a breakthrough.

MARTIN: You know as well as anyone that North Korea is unpredictable. Do you suspect that there - that this is actually a real opening or is this just part of a game that North Korea is planning to try to perhaps convince the west that they're ready to cooperate?

RICHARDSON: North Korea is going to continue to be unpredictable. But this is a good sign. Here's why - this is the second instance in a row where North Korea has not placed serious conditions on the release of a prisoner. In the past, they've demanded all kinds of concessions to release prisoners. This time, Kim Jong-un made this decision and appears to be sending a sort of a separate signal. Hey, you know, let's see where talks might go. I'm ready to reduce tensions. And so I believe we should take advantage of this and get our South Korean, Chinese, Russian, the Six-Party countries to reengage North Korea.

MARTIN: Bill Richardson is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the former Governor of New Mexico. Thank you so much for talking with us.

RICHARDSON: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.