N. Korea Will Allow Some Aid Groups to Stay, Richardson Says
North Korea has backed away from an order for all international aid organizations to leave the country by the end of the year, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said today as he concluded a four-day visit to the isolated country.
“I believe they’re sending signals of wanting to engage,” an upbeat Richardson said at a news conference in Tokyo this morning, citing the change of heart over the planned expulsions. “Now there’s a reprieve.”
North Korea issued the order to the humanitarian agencies last month, claiming that a bumper harvest this year made the aid unnecessary. But aid agencies argue that more than a quarter of the 23 million North Koreans lack food and that emergency assistance is still needed.
Richardson said he secured permission for the United Nations’ World Food Program and 30 of its international employees to stay in the country. He said, however, that he expected a modest reduction in the total number of international aid agencies in North Korea, to meet the regime’s insistence on a shift from humanitarian to development aid.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also said senior North Korean officials were committed to returning to international negotiations on their nuclear weapons arsenal in early November and would be willing to allow international oversight of their program if Pyongyang were allowed to acquire a nuclear reactor for generating power.
“We shouldn’t expect an agreement in the next round, but there should be measurable progress made,” he said.
North Korea has said it wants a light-water nuclear reactor to meet its energy needs in return for giving up its nuclear weapons ambitions. Washington insists that verifiable nuclear disarmament must precede any discussion of a reactor for peaceful uses.
The governor said his talks in North Korea led him to conclude that the country probably possesses two nuclear weapons. After initially being rebuffed, Richardson was given a two-hour tour of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, though he was denied access to a nearby reprocessing facility where plutonium is extracted from spent fuel rods for possible use in nuclear warheads.
“In my estimation, the sense was they have a small number on the lower end of one to five,” Richardson said. “My sense was two. But I can’t verify that.”
Richardson said he was not visiting Pyongyang as a negotiator but rather used a standing invitation from North Korea to reinforce the Bush administration’s message that Kim Jong Il’s secretive dictatorship must give up its nuclear ambitions. He said the administration had approved his trip.
The governor traveled with a delegation of agricultural, medical and legal experts from New Mexico, a way to demonstrate the potential benefits that North Korea could expect from improved relations with the rest of the world.
“There is still mistrust, but I believe conditions for negotiations have improved,” said Richardson, who has been dealing with North Korean issues for more than a decade. “The atmosphere is the best I’ve seen in 15 years.”
Kim, North Korea’s mercurial leader, did not meet Richardson during his visit. Pyongyang is prone to following up on any positive signal to the international community with conflicting, more bellicose language.