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Richardson: N.Korea talks 'positive, frank and candid'

Discussions in New Mexico extended to third day

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, left, talks with North Korean diplomat Han Song Ryol.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, left, talks with North Korean diplomat Han Song Ryol.

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N.M. Gov. Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., will discuss the nuclear standoff with Korean diplomats. CNN's Andrea Koppel reports (January 9)
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SANTA FE, New Mexico (CNN) -- Gov. Bill Richardson held what he called "positive, frank and candid" discussions Friday with two North Korean diplomats, even as North Korea's decision to withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty sharply escalated a crisis over the nation's nuclear aims.

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has dealt extensively with North Korea, said he and the delegates would meet again Saturday at 8:30 a.m. (10:30 a.m. EST).

"We've discussed a whole host of issues, almost seven hours' worth. Hopefully, my talks will be positive, but it still remains to be seen," Richardson told reporters.

He said he had "extensive discussions" by phone with Secretary of State Colin Powell. He said Powell offered him "strong views, and I have conveyed them to the North Koreans."

But Richardson emphasized he is not acting as an official U.S. envoy. "I am simply an interlocutor," he said. "I'm trying to bring people together."

The discussions have focused on the country's decision to pull out of the nonproliferation treaty "and other concerns," a source knowledgeable about the talks told CNN.

Another source said Richardson is "trying to find out what their position is" and the North Korean diplomats are "trying to find out what our position is."

Official describes split within administration

This official described a split within the Bush administration on how to handle the impasse with North Korea.

Powell favors direct talks, but not negotiation, with North Korea. And during such talks, Powell supports discussing a possible deal that would include a written U.S. assurance not to attack North Korea in exchange for a promise by North Korea to verifiably end its nuclear weapons program, the official said.

Issues being debated among President Bush's national security advisers include whether to reaffirm a 2000 Clinton administration communique in which the United States said it had "no hostile intent" toward the communist state, the source said.

But hard-liners in the White House say it is "inconceivable" -- in the words of one official -- that Bush would agree to that language.

Another contentious subject is that of Richardson's talking points. Although U.S. officials refuse to elaborate publicly, sources tell CNN privately that Richardson was asked by Powell to test the waters on whether a written U.S. security assurance might defuse the crisis.

In Washington, Powell expressed outrage over North Korea's decision to withdraw from the treaty.

"North Korea has thumbed its nose at the international community," he said. "This is very regrettable. It's a sad statement on the part of the North Koreans."

The sources said the meetings with Richardson came about quickly, when the North Koreans approached him after the United States -- in a policy shift -- said Tuesday that it would be willing to meet with them.

Richardson won release of espionage suspect

In addition to Richardson's experience with North Korea during his service as ambassador to the United Nations and as energy secretary, he also, while a congressman, negotiated the 1996 release of Evan Hunziker, who was held by North Korea on suspicion of espionage.

The meetings began Thursday evening. Richardson said the talks lasted two hours and that Friday's session ran about five more hours. The talks were to have ended Friday, but the parties agreed to go another day.

"The talks have been positive, frank and candid, too. We discussed a whole variety of bilateral issues."

Richardson would not specify what those issues were. Asked about Pyongyang's decision to pull out of the treaty, he said, "Obviously, I'm concerned about North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT."

The two Korean diplomats are Han Song Ryol, North Korea's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, and Mun Jong Chol, first secretary to the United Nations.

CNN correspondents Bob Franken, Ed Lavandera and Andrea Koppel contributed to this article.

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