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Santa Fe Residents Take N. Korean Visitors in Stride

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Times Staff Writer

Sworn in just over a week ago, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has yet to move all of his belongings into his new home. But for three days, Richardson met with North Korean officials at his sprawling, partially furnished mansion, attempting to avert a foreign policy crisis while juggling state business and a horde of reporters.

“He is not a big name like Jimmy Carter or Colin Powell, and it’s confusing for us in Korea why this is happening in Santa Fe,” said Insun Kang, a South Korean newspaper reporter, shivering in the mountain air outside the governor’s home.

Local residents were equally mystified by Richardson’s surprise role as intermediary -- the governor is a former U.N. ambassador who has had dealings with North Korea for years.

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But they accepted the North Koreans’ presence with equanimity.

“It seems they went to someone they believed they could trust,” said Lynda Feman, a 44-year-old ceramic artist.

Lia Miera, 21, a waitress at The Shed cafe, talked about the North Koreans with authority; she had served the foreign guests lunch Friday in the restaurant’s private room.

“They were nice and ate everything on their plate,” she said: tortilla chips with guacamole, pozole and enchiladas with a red chile sauce.

After lunch, Han Song Ryol, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, and his entourage toured a shopping mall, St. Francis Cathedral and the Palace of the Governors, built in 1610 as the original capitol of New Mexico.

The North Koreans seemed interested in the sidewalk capitalism just outside the palace: Native Americans selling jewelry and pottery.

“They took a lot of pictures,” said Bernadette Eustace, 50, polishing a silver bracelet. “Just stood at a distance and clicked their cameras.”

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Unfortunately, no jewelry sales were made, she said with a shrug. “They were looking, but they weren’t buying,” Eustace added.

Karen Trueloc was behind the counter of her Southwestern art store when two men in dark suits wandered in.

“Tourists,” she thought hopefully.

As she prepared to offer help, a third man approached.

“He said, ‘Those are the Korean guys who are meeting with the governor,’ ” Trueloc said.

Her hopes soared as she showed the visitors everything from small clay animals to Native American statues.

“They were polite but very quiet. I kept trying to draw them out, to show them things, but it didn’t work,” she said.

Even though reporters staking out the governor’s hillside home went on red alert whenever the North Koreans passed by in an SUV, the foreign dignitaries toured Santa Fe in relative anonymity.

“I saw them yesterday, but I didn’t know who they were until someone told me,” said Cecil Sena, a Santa Fe police officer. “We get a lot of Asian tourists here, so the Koreans fit right in with everybody else.”

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In any case, Sena said, celebrity sightings are a dime a dozen in Santa Fe.

“Julia Roberts walked by last week, and I barely noticed,” he said.

“I had Val Kilmer go by the other day,” chimed in a nearby sidewalk vendor. “Yowza.”

By the time Han left for the Santa Fe airport Saturday, he had eaten a trout dinner garnished with poblano chiles and seen his first New Mexican rainbow.

It arched over the Sandia Mountains in the distance, a sight that prompted Richardson spokesman Billy Sparks to recite a Native American saying:

“If the eyes have no tears, the Earth would have no rainbows.”

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