Some of those closest to former President Bill Clinton have not forgiven Bill Richardson for turning his back on his wife and endorsing Barack Obama instead last year.
But he tried -- and succeeded -- in mimicking his erstwhile buddy on a high-stakes diplomatic mission to North Korea.
Clinton arrived Monday in Pyongyang to try to bring back two American journalists who were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering the country while on a reporting trip in March.
Late today, the North Korean official news agency announced that the two journalists had received a "special pardon" and would be released.
As president, Clinton appointed Richardson as UN ambassador and energy secretary and dispatched him on several high-level diplomatic missions while he was in Congress, including direct talks with then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Richardson also went on similar private missions to North Korea, negotiating the release of two Americans.
Despite personal arm-twisting, including watching the Super Bowl together, Richardson backed Obama instead of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is now Obama's secretary of state. Former Clinton adviser James Carville, in accusing Richardson of betraying the Clintons, compared the New Mexico governor to the Biblical Judas.
After news of the expected release, Richardson said Clinton achieved the immediate objective, but the mission also "improves the atmospherics between the two countries."
"The relationship is really in bad shape right now," Richardson said on CNN. "There's enormous tension. There's literally no dialogue. So, maybe what the bonus would be is President Clinton's visit could get both sides just to start talking. But I bet you there are no negotiations on nuclear issues going on."
Asked what the North Koreans won from the trip, Richardson replied, "One, they get international press over the visit of a former president. North Koreans have always wanted President Clinton to come, other American presidents....Also, Kim Jong-il shores up his domestic base. He shows his people that he can deliver a former president to come to North Korea. He helps them also with a succession issue. It's obvious he is not well. He's thinking about leaving power to one of his three sons. So, domestically it gives him that strength."
"Now, what else does North Korea get? They get the fact that the United States sent a very high-level emissary to talk to them. The North Koreans have always wanted to talk to us directly. They don't like the six-party talks of South Korea, Japan, China, Russia. They want to go directly."
The full interview is below:
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: I want to bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, who is here, is joining me now. We are also joined as well by someone -- few westerners have more insight into North Korea than New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He has visited the country, he's helped negotiate the release of other Americans that were held there in the past, and he is now joining us from Santa Fe.
Governor, I want to thank you very much for being here. Obviously, a lot of news that has developed.
You have been in former President Clinton's shoes before in negotiating the release of former Americans. Take us behind the scenes, if you will.
We've seen a couple of stills. We've gotten some news here. But what do you suppose Mr. Clinton was dealing with today with Kim Jong-il?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, first, the fact that President Clinton went to North Korea is huge. It's huge for Kim Jong-il, who is right now ailing and he is looking for ways to shore up his domestic base. It's a succession issue. So, it gives Kim Jong-il a pretext to release the journalists.
This is very important that this happened, the humanitarian release. But having President Clinton there -- and the early signs -- when I was there to negotiating prisoners, you see the little protocol issues, like President Clinton was met by a very high level delegation of North Koreans at the airport. They gave him a state dinner.
The fact that he saw Kim Jong-il is huge. I never saw him. He only sees big shots, heads of state. And those were the signals.
And then the fact that the two journalists have been officially pardoned by a request from the U.S. government to give them amnesty shows that the two journalists most likely will be released. That's the main objective.
But what the president's trip does, it improves the atmospherics between the two countries. The relationship is really in bad shape right now. There's enormous tension. There's literally no dialogue.
So, maybe what the bonus would be is President Clinton's visit could get both sides just to start talking. But I bet you there are no negotiations on nuclear issues going on.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this is Gloria Borger here. How are you, Governor?
North Korea has clearly been angling for direct contact with the United States out of the six-party talks.
Do you think that they're going to get that out of this?
MALVEAUX: Oh, I think Governor Richardson has actually lost the audio. He's not able to hear us at this time. But obviously, someone who has the expertise in this -- in hostage negotiations, as well as dealing with North Korea with his own trips.
MALVEAUX: I want to bring back Governor Richardson.
I believe, Governor Richardson, do you have our audio back?
RICHARDSON: Yes. I think I'm back. Yes.
MALVEAUX: OK. Great.
Gloria Borger was asking you a question. We'll get back to her.
BORGER: Yes. I was asking you essentially what else the North Koreans would be getting out of this, aside from the photo-ops with Bill Clinton? I mean, clearly, they want direct contact with the U.S. outside the six-party talks.
Does this qualify for that? Would Bill Clinton have come with a message on that?
RICHARDSON: Well, this is what the North Koreans get. One, they get international press over the visit of a former president. North Koreans have always wanted President Clinton to come, other American presidents. We have not done that appropriately.
I think that's been the right decision, but they get -- also, Kim Jong-il shores up his domestic base. He shows his people that he can deliver a former president to come to North Korea.
He helps them also with a succession issue. It's obvious he is not well. He's thinking about leaving power to one of his three sons. So, domestically it gives him that strength.
Now, what else does North Korea get? They get the fact that the United States sent a very high-level emissary to talk to them. The North Koreans have always wanted to talk to us directly. They don't like the six-party talks of South Korea, Japan, China, Russia. They want to go directly.
They think they're a nuclear power, they're major players. They're very unpredictable. So they get -- that's what they get.
Now, what they will probably ask for is direct talks. But who knows? They right now are acting very, very unpredictably because of the succession issue.
I have never seen the tension and the differences between our two countries so vast and the hostility of the North Koreans so strong. This is why I think Clinton's visit is good. It cools down the atmospherics.
BORGER: Now, the White House has said that former President Clinton did not come with any written statement from President Obama. The official news agency there said that Bill Clinton apologized verbally.
What do you assume Bill Clinton was armed with from this administration when he went there?
RICHARDSON: Well, I do believe the White House. I don't believe that a message was delivered from President Obama.
They already got, the North Koreans, what they wanted, a former president. So, increasing what they are going to get doesn't make sense. They have already got major prestige by Clinton going.
What I do believe President Clinton -- the apology was already done by the women at the trial. The Obama administration has asked for amnesty. So, the proper words were used, respecting their judicial system of the North Koreans. So now the girls can be released.
And I think that is the ultimate objective of this trip. It's a very good objective, because obviously what the North Koreans have tried to do is use the two women journalists as bargaining chips, and in a way, they have gotten a little bit of a chip by getting a former president to visit them.
After years of them wanting high-level visits, they got Secretary Albright, but they've always wanted Clinton to come. He almost came a few days before he ended his presidency some 10 years ago.
So, both sides get something. We get the two girls out. That is really important.
I just talked to the families, to Lisa Ling. They are very excited.
And maybe what we also get is a framework for talks. We want to talk to the North Koreans. You don't want a country with four or five nuclear weapons shooting missiles out there without some kind of international dialogue. You don't want to isolate them.
MALVEAUX: Sure. You said you just talked to the families of the two journalists. Can you tell us what they said?
RICHARDSON: Well, I talked to Lisa Ling, who I've been working with on this issue for some time, along with the administration, although I don't speak for the administration. They asked for my advice.
And she is very excited, the fact that the girls have been pardoned. I think Lisa is -- her sister has had some physical ailments, but the fact that it looks like everything is moving towards a return back home, she is very excited.
She's been -- Lisa has suffered a lot. You know, it has been five months.
This has been one of the longest detainments of Americans that we have had in a long time, and I have been able to get a couple of different ones out, but this one has lasted five months. There was a sentence of hard labor. The girls were, you know, getting obviously -- having some physical ailments, but the great news is that they are coming home.
MALVEAUX: And being in touch with the family, have you had a sense of the accommodations, the way that they have been living?
Oh, Governor Richardson has just lost us again. I apologize.
MALVEAUX: We want to go back to Governor Richardson. I believe that he is back with us.
And you were just making a point about the families and you were talking with the families. Do we have a sense of the conditions of the two journalists who have been held?
RICHARDSON: Well, the reports that we have are that they were not at a prison, they were staying mainly at a guesthouse. I have seen those guesthouses, they're in good condition. They were well fed.
The good news is that the North Koreans let them make phone calls to their families on a periodic basis, let the Swedish ambassador come in who represents us in North Korea to check on their medical condition, not as much they should. But here you have prisoners that have enormous mental strain. You know, the fact that two girls knew they had been sentenced to eight to 10 years of hard labor, not being in contact with their families, not knowing when this nightmare was going to end, which
has been close to five months.
So, the families have suffered a lot, and they have been magnificent in their efforts to bring public attention to this issue. So, the biggest winners, obviously, are the American people and these families and the two girls, and Al Gore. They work for Al Gore. He worked very hard to try to get them out, too. And President Clinton obviously deserves credit for being the one that made the deal.
MALVEAUX: OK. Bill Richardson, thank you very much.
MALVEZUX,: We want to bring back Governor Richardson, who's been standing by.
And obviously, you have had your own experience in hostage negotiations and releasing Americans who were held there before in
North Korea. We were talking before about the role of the former president, Clinton, there, Bill Clinton.
What do we anticipate going forward now, that you have him doing such a -- facilitating such an extraordinary move here in the Obama administration. What -- how is this divvied up in a way, and how do we make sense of what he has done, the role of his wife, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the current president, President Obama?
RICHARDSON: Well, I believe the Obama administration was very skillful, and obviously since we don't have direct contact with the North Koreans, somebody else has to do it, an unofficial envoy. President Clinton is not a member of the government, but he's obviously a former president, and his enormous stature. So, the fact that he has gone and interceded has been -- is very important.
The fact is, the North Koreans, I believe, have wanted somebody like Clinton to come for a long time. They wanted him to come when he was president, they are getting an ex-president.
What this means, I believe, is Clinton's visit not just releases the two American journalists, but also sets up a more positive tempo for us and the North Koreans to start talking, period, because we haven't been talking. There's been enormous hostility.
They've had underground tests. They are very -- they abandoned the six-party talks. So maybe this will provide a channel for some direct talks with the North Koreans or some kind of contact to negotiate some of these nuclear and other issues that divide us.
BORGER: When you say some direct talks what, do you mean? I mean, do you think that a message is going to come back via Bill Clinton than they want direct talks? I mean, what kind of message are they going to send back to this White House?
RICHARDSON: Well, obviously, they are not just going to talk about the journalists.
RICHARDSON: They had a state dinner. He talked to Kim Jong-il. Some kind of direction or statement President Clinton may be able to come back with, like they want to talk directly to us and not go through the six-party talks, or they would accept a visit by a special envoy -- we have one, Stephen Bosworth -- coming to North Korea. It can be any kind of messages like that.
I don't believe they will negotiate reductions in the nuclear arsenal of North Korea, the Yongbyon reactor. That's for our negotiators. But since we haven't been talking at all, since the relationship has been frozen and hostile, any kind of future movement that Bill Clinton can bring back and say that we're ready to talk from the North Koreans is a good step. And so, that's the added benefit besides the release of the two journalists, which is a great benefit to the country and to their families.
BORGER: Do you have any sense why they didn't want the former vice president, Al Gore, to go? There was a lot of talk about a month ago that Al Gore was going to be going over there and having these negotiations.
RICHARDSON: Well, look, these decisions about who goes are not just made by one side, they're made by both sides. And it could that the North Koreans wanted former President Clinton.
BORGER: Because he was higher stature? Higher stature than...
RICHARDSON: Well, yes. Yes, because he's a former president, because Kim Jong-il had wanted him to visit when Bill Clinton was president, because Bill Clinton negotiated the agreed framework with North Korea in 1994, because of the stature.
Obviously, the North Koreans have gotten Kim Jong-il a great political internal benefit, having a former president there. And just the worldwide press that he gets shows that Kim Jong-il, by getting Bill Clinton, is a major player. That's what Kim Jong-il was trying to do, and this is why Clinton is able to bring this, but in return we get the journalists and maybe a thawing of the relationship, which is good for both sides.
MALVEAUX: Governor Richardson, you talk about stature, and we know that when President Clinton was president, it was former President Jimmy Carter who went to North Korea and managed eventually to get an accord, some sort of nuclear accord in '94. It was something that President Clinton at the time, he wasn't particularly thrilled with, that you had a former president that was making such a big trip and such a big splash.
What does this do for President Obama now? Does this help him? Does it hurt him? Does it give him greater gravitas and stature in dealing with the North Korean regime because of what President Clinton has done?
RICHARDSON: Well, it shows that President Obama has been skillful in dealing with North Korea since the relationship is so frozen. The fact that I'm sure he concurred that President Clinton go, he was on an Air Force plane.
President Clinton is doing a good thing by getting the journalists back. So, it shows that sometimes you can't engage in direct diplomacy between the governments, you use a third party envoy. And it could be that the North Koreans said we only will take Bill Clinton and that's it.
And the fact that we agreed to do this, and the fact that I'm sure they are talking about other issues -- not negotiating, but simply talking about getting together next, that would be a very important step forward. But I don't want to diminish the fact that our government has stood up for two Americans, that we're not going to leave them behind, that we care about their humanitarian release, we care about free journalism, and we care about bringing them home. I think that's another humanitarian aspect of the release of the two women that we shouldn't forget about -- the status of the families, Lisa Ling, the parents, the two girls that now will be able to go home.
And Al Gore I think deserves a lot of credit, because I know he was working hard to secure their release. He has a lot of contacts. He was talking to the State Department just like many others like myself were doing.
MALVEAUX: And I understand that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also played an active role. Is that correct?
RICHARDSON: Yes, she did. I mean, she called me to get advice. She talked to foreign diplomats. She talked to the Swedes that are our intermediaries.
She pressed this internationally. She was the one that talked about amnesty, which I think was key in getting the North Koreans to be able to justify, even though they went through their legal process, that they can now move ahead with a pardon, as just happened.
Yes, she was very active. I think this is a plus for everybody -- for us, for the North Koreans, and for the idea of peace of bringing people together and talking. We got to talk to these people. We don't want them running around with four nuclear weapons and hostility and a million troops -- men and women in uniform in North Korea -- missiles around. We have 23 -- 27,000 American troops in South Korea. You want to lessen tensions. That's the idea of diplomacy.
And I think this trip, besides getting the journalists, has done that. Lessened tensions.
MALVEAUX: I want to bring in our CNN Foreign Affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty who also covers the State Department to ask a question of you, Governor if I may -- Jill?
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Governor Richardson, you know, you were talking about whether other subjects they might get into.
And I'm just reading the statement by (INAUDIBLE) and they say they had a candid, in depth discussion on pending issues between the DTRK and the U.S., and reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them.
What do you think that means? How far do you think that former President Clinton went because he was supposed to be talking merely (ph) about the journalists?
RICHARDSON: Now, well, Jill, you know, that that's diplomatic language. You know, whenever two leaders sit together you say you had discussions on a wide variety of subjects.
President Clinton was there to negotiate the release of the journalists and he probably made that appeal to Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Il responded and then they go and talk about other issues. Basically I would say Kim Jong-Il was talking to President Clinton saying, you know, this is the view of my country and this is our position on this. And it was a simple polite dialogue but there was -- I'm sure there's no negotiating going on.
But, obviously, since we have differences over nuclear weapons, over whether we reengage into the six-party talks or bilaterally or human rights issues, they could have covered a number of subjects.
But they're not negotiating. It's just ordinary diplomacy. It happened to me when I was there. They raise a lot of issues. They care about U.S. politics. They could have talked about the election.
You know, it's just a lot of things.
MALVEAUX: Governor Richardson, we'd really like to thank you for being here.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.