The United States Department criticized the decision of Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to travel to North Korea, just weeks after a controversial rocket launch took place in the reclusive nation.
But former ambassador Christopher Hill says there isn’t much harm that can come of the trip. Hill said while it’s clear to North Korean leaders that Bill Richardson is not a US envoy on an official mission, Richardson’s visit could help release an American citizen currently detained in Pyongyang.
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Marco Werman: North Korea got some high-profile visitors today: Google’s execdutive chairman, Eric Schmidt, and former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson. The two men say they are on a private humanitarian mission. The U.S. State Department, however, did not approve their trip to the Communist paraiah nation. Former U.S.-North Korea envoy, Christopher Hill, says the trip gives him a sense of déja vu.
Christopher Hill: Well, frankly, I’ve seen this movie before, and it often happens when not a lot is happening or not anything good is happening. So, Bill Richardson has cultivated relationships there over the years, and I think he’s seeing if he can do something. And I usually just put these things into one of two categories: are they harmful, or are they not harmful? And I really don’t see the harm in this.
Werman: So, let’s talk about the two main people on this trip. You mentioned Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt. Why is the head of Google in North Korea? Do you know?
Hill: Well, you’ll have to ask him, but he’s someone who I think likes to get around and observe things first-hand. When I ambassador in Iraq he showed up there for several days. So, I think he likes to kind of get a sense of a place, and certainly North Korea, for better or worse, remains one of these very exotic places in the world.
Werman: And the other person on this trip, four-day trip to Pyongyang, is former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson. He has taken official and unofficial to North Korea in the past decade. He says this is a humanitarian mission. What’s his goal here?
Hill: Well, I think he’s seeking the release of an American citizen who has been held there for several weeks now, maybe months. The difference is that, in the past, while the administration has never supported his trips, they’ve never opposed them in the way the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, did last week. So, obviously not all is well on this trip. But, he’s someone who’s gone there several times. I don’t think the North Koreans expect him to deliver much for them. I think they understand sort of where he stands in the pecking order in Washington, so I don’t really see any negativity that could come as a result of it.
Werman: What kind of credibility and rapport does Bill Richardson have with leaders in North Korea that would get this American prisoner freed?
Hill: Well, first of all, he’s a very, very pragmatic person. He would sit down with Milosevic, smoke cigars with him. He would talk to a lot of people that many people outside of the professional diplomatic circles would try to stay away from. So, he’s very relaxed, very informal. Because he’s not carrying any official capacity, he can basically say what he thinks. And sometimes just say what he thinks the other person wants to hear. So, I think he’s got, you know, a lot of bandwidth to do what he wants to do, and I suspect he’s hoping that he can gain the release of an American and then at the end of the day no one will criticize a trip that actually comes up with some kind of good thing.
Werman: Now, Christopher Hill, earlier you said that no harm can really come from such trips like this, but the State Department isn’t happy with this trip and its timing right after this rocket launch. So, it seemed that not potentially any harm could come from this trip.
Hill: Well, my own view is that the North Koreans know Bill Richardson pretty well. And they know the fact that he is not a sort of administration surrogate. So, I think what the State Department would be worried about is whether the North Koreans would think that he’s some kind of envoy from the Obama administration. I think that concern is a little misplaced. I think the North Koreans understand that this does not signal any kind of effort by the Obama administration to ameliorate relationships in North Korea, especially after the recent missile launch. And I think that’s precisely the kind of moment where Bill Richardson tries to enter, and if something can come about because, after all, it can’t get any worse, he could take a little credit for it.
Werman: Former ambassador, Christopher Hill, now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies. Thank you very much.
Hill: Thank you.
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