December 15th, 2010

Transcript: Bill Richardson on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer

Tonight live from Beijing, China – CNN’s Wolf Blitzer spoke with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson about his trip to North Korea. Gov. Richardson asked Blitzer to join him as the only network journalist. Blitzer will provide reports from Beijing, China and Pyongyang, North Korea. Two highlights from tonight’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer follow.


Part 1: Wolf Blitzer’s Interview with Governor Bill Richardson – 5 p.m. ET

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Governor Bill Richardson is here with me. We’re getting ready to — in the next few hours, we’re to go to the embassy — the North Korean embassy. You’ve worked it out. You’ve been invited by them before. You’ve been invited this time. You’re going for four days, what do you hope to accomplish?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: My main objective is to try to calm down the North Koreans, to get them to stop some of these aggressive actions, the — the artillery shootings, the sinking of the ship, the uranium enrichment efforts. I’ve been there several times. I’ve negotiated with them successfully on behalf of American prisoners, American servicemen. We’ve pushed them toward negotiations. We got some remains out — American remains of our soldiers some four years ago. And, as you said, they’ve invited me. But I’m there on a private mission. I’m not representing the administration. I am there to see if there’s anything that I can do to — to — to cool things down and see where we go from here.

BLITZER: But you would — but you wouldn’t go if they said to you, Governor Richardson, don’t go, this is a bad time for you to go? Nobody in the Obama administration said don’t go?

RICHARDSON: That’s correct. Six months ago, they invited me, the North Koreans did. And I asked the Obama administration if they felt it was OK for me to go. I’m a private citizen, I don’t have to get their approval, but I want them to sign off. And I didn’t go for six months. Recently, I told them I got this significant invitation from Kim Kye-Gwan, who is their chief nuclear negotiator, to go. And they signed off, but as long as I said it was a private mission. And — and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to try to persuade them to — to cool down what they’re doing, to see if there’s a way that we can move forward on — on negotiations.

BLITZER: Let — let’s bring in Dr. Siegfried Hecker from Stanford University. He’s the go — co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, the director emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well. Professor, you were just there in react weeks in North Korea. And you had an eye-opening demonstration of their new technology, their new equipment in enriching uranium and information that not known to any of us, to — to the U.S. officials or others, presumably. Tell our viewers what shocked you.

SIEGFRIED HECKER, EMERITUS DIRECTOR, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY: Well, indeed, I was there on November 12th. It was my fourth visit to Yongbyon. And as you indicate, the — at least the size and the sophistication of the uranium enrichment program was, quite frankly, stunning. I certainly expected them to have uranium enrichment in spite of their repeated denial of having done so. But I did not expect them to have advanced this far. They have previously shown me, in quite some detail, their plutonium program. I was very much aware of that. But the uranium enrichment, sort of another capability, was quite a surprise.

BLITZER: Why is this such a — a significant development? For our viewers in the United States and around the world, why should this be alarming?

HECKER: Well, in fact, the North Koreans have actually declared already last year, when they left the six party talks, they said we’re now left with the only option of nuclear energy is to build a light water reactor ourselves. For that kind of reactor, one actually has to enrich the fuel. They announced that. And I must say, I also did not believe that they would actually go through with that. They did. So that, by itself, would actually not be such a shocking development. They said they’re going to do it. They did it.

What the concern around the world is, is that once you develop those capabilities for a light water reactor, in other words, making the reactor fuel, you, at the same time, can use that facility or another one just like it that may be at an undisclosed location to make the second route to the bomb, and that is to make highly enriched bomb fuel instead of the plutonium. The plutonium bomb fuel program they have frozen. And this opened up the possibility of a second route. Let me just say add that that, by itself, doesn’t increase the danger —

BLITZER: It could also —

HECKER: — enormously at this — it doesn’t increase the danger enormously at this moment. It would only increase the danger if, indeed, they make much more.

BLITZER: It also suggests, Governor Richardson — and you’ve been there. You’ve been to Yongbyon, their nuclear facility. It also suggests perhaps there’s a lot of other stuff going on in North Korea that no one knows about on the outside.

RICHARDSON: That’s right. And that’s a concern. Exports of nuclear materials to other countries. But I’d like to ask Dr. Hecker something, because I went to that facility five years ago, Yongbyon. It did not look like a very modern facility. So what Dr. Hecker says is taking place is a dramatic modernization. But I wondered if Dr. Hecker saw any of the centrifuges.

Were they running? Have they moved beyond what you saw? And do you think that some of those centrifuges at Yongbyon are — are running?

HECKER: So, the — the way that the facility was presented to us, is we looked at it from a second floor observation window from the control room. And you look down at this huge hall with approximately 2,000 centrifuges. And all you see is the outside of the centrifuge casing. And you see the plumbing that feeds the gas in and out. You can’t actually tell that it’s running or not. So let me say very specifically, I could not Los Alamos Lab that that centrifuge facility was operating.

However, thing — however, everything that I saw, the facility itself, the control room, what they call the recovery room, was consistent with the fact that that facility could be running. So my own impression is it was.

BLITZER: All right. Dr. Hecker, thank you so much. We’re going to continue this conversation in the next hour. We have more information coming in, including what’s going on in China right now. Are the Chinese helping or undermining the latest efforts to deal with this crisis involving North and South Korea? Governor Richardson is going to be with us. Much more of our coverage coming up — Suzanne, in the meantime, back to you.

Part 2: Wolf Blitzer’s Interview with Governor Bill Richardson – 6 p.m. ET

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Suzanne, we’re getting ready, in the next few hours, to get on a plane and fly from here, in Beijing, to Pyongyang, with the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. He’s here with us right now. He’s been invited by the North Korean government to (AUDIO GAP) several times. This is an incredibly tense moment, as you know, Governor, right now, this invitation that you’re getting, as the crisis seems to be escalating. How worried are you that it could simply get out of control?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, I am extremely concerned because, the rhetoric and the actions of the North Koreans, the tenseness on all sides (AUDIO GAP) the regime. I’m going there on a private mission. I’m not representing the U.S. government, but at the invitation of the top (AUDIO GAP), Kim Kye-Gwan. I’ve been able, in the past, to succeed with the North Koreans, getting them to release American pilots, prisoners, the remains of our soldiers from the Korean War; get them into — going into negotiations. So my objective is to — to try to ratchet down the — the North Korean actions, to see if there’s a way that we can get a framework for some kind of discussions. But there’s something going on there. And that’s why I’m going.

BLITZER: In my conversations with Obama administration officials in Washington before flying off here to China, they didn’t — they said to me they didn’t tell you not to go, but they clearly were not enthusiastic about your mission this time. And they were concerned that the North Koreans were going to use you for prop — for their propaganda purposes. This is a concern they have. How do you deal with that?

RICHARDSON: Well, my first point is that six months ago, I got invited by the North Koreans. And at the request of the Obama administration, I didn’t go. They kind of signed off that it was OK to go, as long as I emphasized that it was a private mission. I know they have concerns. But sometime sometimes citizens — citizen diplomacy, people to people diplomacy — I have experience with the North Koreans. They’ve invited me. I’ve succeeded with them in past. And — and I think the situation is so serious right now that maybe a — a new voice will be able to help the situation.

BLITZER: You’re not carry any messages —


BLITZER: — from Washington to Pyongyang?


BLITZER: But you expect that they will give you a message to bring back to the president?

RICHARDSON: Well, they — they invited me for a reason. Usually, they like to tell me something or they vent or maybe — maybe what I can pick up is — is a way to diffuse the situation. You know, we have allies. South Korea — they’re extremely concerned. They’re going through this drill. U.S. policy right now is being, I think, formed to — to deal with this new situation where the North Koreans are — are the latest taking a new, aggressive step, not just rhetorically, but actions. And then China — and we’re here today — they’re key players. And maybe there’s an important role that they can continue to play.

BLITZER: Governor, hold on for a second. I want to bring in some other experts who are joining us now. Jack Pritchard is the president of the Korea — the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, a former Clinton administration expert on North Korea. He was just there. Also joining us, Mike Chinoy, a former CNN correspondent who’s been to North Korea on many occasions. He’s now a senior fellow at The China Institute at the University of Southern California. And Dr. Jim Walsh, who is an expert on foreign policy, especially Asia, at MIT. Jim, let me start with you. What is your biggest concern right now?

JIM WALSH, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Well, my biggest concern is that someone is going to make a mistake. And we almost saw that two weeks ago with the shellings. It wasn’t widely reported in the United States, but South Korea, in the middle of this crisis, accidentally shot an artillery shell near the DMZ, had to call North Korea and tell them it was a mistake, that they weren’t launching a war.

So I think Governor Richardson is exactly right, that it’s time that someone, even if it’s not a government official, begin to talk to North Korea, just so we don’t end up in a place that no one wants to be out of miscalculation, misperception or error. That’s my concern. And I think there is a danger of that right now.

BLITZER: Jack Pritchard, you were just there in North Korea. What did you see there that concerned you?

JACK PRITCHARD, KOREA ECONOMIC INSTITUTE: Well, I asked to go to Pyongyang, I think as, perhaps, Mr. Richardson will be going, as well. But what I didn’t expect is what the North Koreans revealed to me at the time, that they were in the process of constructing, on their own, a light water reactor. And in that discussion, they also revealed to me that they had a uranium enrichment facility there at Yongbyon. That was news.

And with that information, I briefed Dr. Hecker, who followed me the following week. And he was able to, hopefully at my urging to the North Koreans, to go into the enrichment facility and see for himself that, in fact, the North Koreans have moved much further along in their capability and perhaps state-of-the-art of what they’re doing with regard to uranium enrichment.

BLITZER: Mike Chinoy, you’ve been to North Korea on several occasions. Why do you think the North Koreans want these separate U.S. delegations, including Governor Richardson, to come in right now? They clearly know that when these Americans go back home, they’re going to sit — tell the world what they saw.

MIKE CHINOY, US-CHINA INSTITUTE AT USC: I think the North Koreans are trying to send two signals. The Richardson trip is one of several that we’ve seen over the past few months. And there have been two messages coming from North Korea on these trips.

On the one hand, the North has consistently signaled that it is interested in some kind of engagement with the Obama administration. At the same time, by showing off their new nuclear facilities, the message is very clear that in the absence of engagement, the North is perfectly happy to move ahead and further its nuclear capability. And I think that, I think, is going to add to the pressure to find some way to open up channels of dialogue and discussion, since the alternative is greater tension and a nuclear — a more nuclear capable North Korea.

BLITZER: As we get ready to head off to North Korea, Governor Richardson, China — and we’re in China right now. Everyone agrees that China has got to play a much more productive role. They have the — they’re the ones who have the real influence in Pyongyang. Are you satisfied with what China is doing right now to try to help?

RICHARDSON: Well, I think their record is mixed. And the Obama administration is correct to — to insist on more Chinese action.

They provide — China — a lot of food and fuel to North Korea. They’re a key vote in the U.N. Security Council. And — and you — having been at the UN, I know how important it is to avoid a Chinese veto of sanctions and many other actions. Yes, China is a key player. If there is going to be some kind of engagement, China is going to have to play an important part. But right now, they’re sending mixed messages — China is.

And so my hope is that after our trip, we’re able to assess maybe ways that we can get some engagement going; but most importantly, get the situation defused here, because it’s — it’s very tense. It’s a tinderbox. And it’s important that, again, you get new voices in, not just governments, but citizens, other international organizations. And this is why I hope we can contribute to — to stabilizing the situation.

BLITZER: Jack Pritchard, you were just there in North Korea. You served as a Clinton administration official. How — how serious do you take all this speculation that the reaction escalation in tension has something to do with success — succession from the current leader, Kim Jong-il, to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, if that, in fact, is going to take place? Is that part of this equation?

PRITCHARD: Well, I think it is part. It’s certainly not the whole part. But when I was there, I think there’s a couple of messages they were sending. One is that the health of Kim Jong-il was fine. They invited me to take a look at the pictures of him that perhaps you’re showing now, going out and inspecting. And they made that transition, that they, at the leadership level, have accepted the fact that Kim Jong-un is going to be the next leader and they’re rallying behind him.

The concerns that you’ve expressed with Bill Richardson about China, I think, are spot on. Up to now, we’ve given the Chinese a pass because we have understood their concerns about the fragility of the regime. But I think in this coming year, having seen what the North Koreans are capable of doing with the sinking of the Cheonan and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong, that the Chinese are going to be forced to step up and provide some reasonable measure of pressure on the North Koreans to behave.

BLITZER: A lot of people are concerned, Jim Walsh, that the Obama administration really doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage on China right now, to step up to the plate. Are you concerned about that?

WALSH: Well, of course, China is a rising power. We have lots of interests with China. We’re trying to get China’s help with us in Iran, China’s help elsewhere, economic issues. But light — let me take a slightly different point of view here. And no one knows more about this than Jack. But let me at least offer the other side. And that is, yes, we want China to be engaged. Yes, they’ve been able to produce results in the past. But we don’t want a situation where China is — that — where North Korea sees China as an adversary.

Right now, when I visit North Korea, North Koreans express concern about China. Yes, they’re a brother, they’re an ally, but they’re a great power. And North Korea thinks it’s surrounded by great powers — Japan, South Korea, China, the U.S. And if — if the relationship between China and North Korea turns bad, turns sour, then the six party talks turn into five against one. North Korea will be defensive, particularly at a time of political transition. And we will make no progress at all. So, yes, China has a role to play. But we don’t want them to cross that line, where North Korea loses confidence and then — and then nothing happens at all. So that’s actually a real balancing act for China to pull off.

BLITZER: And, Mike Chinoy, the fact that the North Koreans have decided to give me, a representative of C — of CNN, a visa, also, a reporter from “The New York Times” is going along with Governor Richardson on this trip. You’re a reporter, a journalist. You’ve been there many times. What does it say to you that they’re letting these two journalists in?

CHINOY: I think it’s clear the North Koreans have some important messages that they want to deliver on this trip and that they want to get out to the general public and to the political elite in Washington. And I suspect the message is going to be we want to talk and if we don’t talk with the United States, there’s going to be more trouble to come.

I think there’s one other really important point, though, Wolf, that needs to be addressed here. And that is, in South Korea, you have a government that’s had two episodes — the sinking of that ship in March and the shelling of an island a couple of weeks ago — where it did not respond militarily. And now the South Korean government is under tremendous pressure to get tough.

And I think there is a real danger that the South Koreans are almost looking for an excuse to take some kind of military action against North Korea if there is another encounter. And that’s a potentially very dangerous situation. And while Washington is publicly standing shoulder to shoulder with Seoul, I think privately, the American forces in Korea and administration officials will be counseling some degree of caution to prevent South Korea, for its own domestic reasons, from taking action that lead to a cycle of escalation that could become even more dangerous.

BLITZER: Yes. And one — one miscalculation by the North Koreans or the South Koreans could result in all-out war. The casualties would be in the hundreds of thousands, something, God forbid, we obviously don’t want to see. Gentlemen, thanks very much. Bill Richardson and I, we’re going to head over to the North Korean embassy. It’s just getting early here Thursday morning in Beijing. We’ll see if they stamp our passports. We hope they will. They — they told us they will. And then we’ll fly off to Pyongyang. We’ll be reporting from the scene over the next four days — Suzanne. We’ll let our viewers know what’s going on in the United States and around the world. It’s going to be a good opportunity for all of us to see North Korea up front — Suzanne.