Richardson says North Korea trip is opening for talks

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BEIJING (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson praised North Korea on Tuesday for not retaliating against South Korean artillery drills, and said the current tensions offered an opening for new multinational talks on ending the North’s nuclear program.

Richardson had already announced before leaving Pyongyang on Tuesday following talks that officials there said they would allow the return of U.N. inspectors to check that a major nuclear complex was not producing enriched uranium for a bomb.

North Korea expelled the inspectors last year and recently showed a visiting American scientist a new, highly advanced uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second way to make atomic bombs, in addition to its plutonium programs.

“They have shown, I believe, a step in the right direction,” Richardson told reporters at the Beijing airport, referring to the leadership’s decision not to follow through on threats to respond to Monday’s drills. “I think it is important that a new effort at reengagement takes place among the six-party countries.”

Russia, one of the six nations participating in the nuclear talks, has called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss a proposal to send a special U.N. envoy to North and South Korea and neighboring countries, Moscow’s ambassador to China said.

The envoy’s mission would be to “ensure the normalization of the situation,” Sergei Razov said.

Japan, China, the U.S. and the two Koreas are the talks’ other participants.

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has served as an unofficial envoy to North Korea in the past, said he was on a private visit to the North but that he will brief the Obama administration on the outcome.

The trip came amid soaring tensions on the Korean peninsula after last month’s North Korean artillery attack on South Korea’s front-line island of Yeonpyeong that killed four people. The attack and diplomacy in its aftermath “provides an opportunity for a dialogue for a resumption of talks,” Richardson said.

North Korea pulled out of six-nation talks in April 2009, and kicked inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency out of the country after the U.N. Security Council condemned Pyongyang for a rocket launch.

Richardson said Pyongyang indicated it was willing to sell South Korea 12,000 plutonium fuel rods, which would remove some bomb-making material from North Korea.

North Korea’s Nov. 23 bombardment of Yeonpyeong came in response to a South Korean live-fire drill on the island — which is within sight of the North’s mainland — and Seoul launched another round of live-fire exercises Monday.

Richardson said he encouraged North Korea to show restraint in the face of Monday’s drill. There has been no immediate sign of any North Korean response to the maneuvers.

“I pushed them very hard not to respond. They make their own decisions, but I think our trip had a good impact,” he said.

Richardson said talks were needed now to determine when IAEA inspectors would be allowed to check the North’s uranium enrichment facilities.

He said North Korean officials told him they would consider proposals to set up a military hotline with South Korea and establish a military commission to monitor the situation along the disputed western sea border where tensions have been running high.

Richardson has visited North Korea several times for talks, including negotiating the release of a detained American in 1996, and for the collection of the remains of American servicemen killed during the Korean War.