CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (far right) has been in Pyongyang, North Korea, covering New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s (center) diplomatic talks with the North Koreans. He was the only journalist on Richardson’s trip to North Korea. He spoke via phone Monday evening to CNN's Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley.
Crowley: Joining me now is Wolf Blitzer from Pyongyang. He's been over there covering New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in these delicate, delicate times for North Korea. Give me a sense when you first learned and how you first learned that North Korea was backing off and would not retaliate against the South for the South’s live fire exercises?
Blitzer: “It's interesting. Candy - throughout the days that I was here covering Richardson's talks, and he met with top-ranking North Korean officials, I kept hearing some - at least private comments to me as a reporter - that seemed to be a little bit more moderate, a little bit more responsible than some of the earlier statements that they made for propaganda purposes. But I assumed that once the South Koreans began their live-fire exercise on this island, that the North Koreans would respond militarily with some sort of retaliation - that's the statement going into the exercise that the North Korean military had made. I assume when they make a statement like that, they’re not going to back down.
It was not only encouraging, but surprising to me, at least, when they formally said, ‘You know what? We're not going to respond militarily. Right now, it's not worth it.’ With hindsight, I think it came on the heels of the North Koreans agreeing to some of Richardson’s proposals to create a hot line – at least they were receptive to creating a military-to-military hot line between North and South Korea - a joint military commission involving the U.S. and both Koreas as well as allowing international atomic agency monitors to come back and start inspecting the nuclear facility.
So there was a series of steps that were coming through. At least in the statements the North Koreans were making to me, they seemed more moderate. But I was still surprised when they formally announced they weren't going to retaliate. That seemed to be a new opening. And maybe there's a new chapter. But of course, we'll have to wait and see.
Crowley: When you talk about the things that Bill Richardson, the outgoing governor of New Mexico proposed, he has no official standing with the administration. They clearly know he’s on this trip, they’ll clearly debrief him when he gets back. But when he says things like 'OK there should be a hot line, and you should do this or that,' is there anything that he - the governor - knows that says to him that South Korea will go along with these things if the administration is on board or is this pure freelancing?
Blitzer: I don't think it's pure freelancing. Certainly the North Koreans don't consider him to be a freelancer even though he's here as a private citizen. The Obama administration said to him if you want to go, go. Six months ago, they said to him “don’t go” after the torpedo destruction of that South Korean warship the Cheonan that killed 46 South Korean families.
At that point, he was invited and the Obama administration said “don't go.” He didn’t go. This time they didn’t tell him not to go, so he’s here. I think they look at him as a United States official, basically, and all of the meetings that I covered, it seems like a government-to-government meeting. He's there at the table with two or three aides and they’ve got a whole team on the other side of the table with note takers. It looks very, very formal.
These meetings he’s having are anything but informal. I’m sure he’ll go back, brief the Obama administration on what happened, what he saw, what he learned. I assume it will be useful for the Korean experts in Washington. I think he leaves here encouraged by the specific proposals that they accepted but more importantly that they refrained from escalating this crisis.
This could have been a disaster. This is the most dangerous spot on Earth right now. One million North Korean forces over the DMZ. On the other side, hundreds of thousands of South Korean forces, 30,000 American soldiers in between, not only with artillery, rockets, but nuclear weapons. This thing could have escalated, it could have exploded, a tinderbox as Richardson kept calling it. The fact that it's calm now, quiet for the time being, it’s not over with by any means, but it's been eased significantly. I think it's encouraging.