U.S. official to visit North on apparent private trip

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U.S. official to visit North on apparent private trip


Gov. Bill Richardson

WASHINGTON - New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will visit North Korea next week on a private mission, the State Department said Wednesday, amid heightening tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

“We understand he has confirmed that he is going to North Korea,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. “It’s a private visit. He will be not carrying any particular message from the United States government.”

Richardson, once nominated by President Barack Obama as commerce secretary, successfully negotiated the release of two American citizens held in North Korea in the 1990s, and most recently toured the reclusive communist state in 2007 to resume operations to excavate the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Richardson’s office said he will fly to Pyongyang Tuesday and return home Dec. 20.

Crowley expected that the governor will be briefed by the U.S. State Department before his departure and will update officials after returning home.

“I would expect that we would have some contact with him, just to bring him up to speed, before he goes,” Crowley said. “It’s not unusual that when we have these kinds of high-level visitors, he’ll let us know afterward. President Jimmy Carter did come by, and he debriefed the secretary in the aftermath of his visit. I would expect Governor Richardson to report back after he’s done.”

Despite Crowley’s denial of any role Richardson might play, the governor will likely try to thaw the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, which chilled after the North’s firing of an artillery barrage on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island last month that killed four people and injured 18.

Seoul and Washington have rejected repeated calls by China to convene an emergency meeting of chief envoys to attend six-party talks on the North’s nuclear dismantlement in order to ease tensions triggered by the shelling of the island, the first of its kind on South Korean soil since the end of the Korean War.

South Korea and the U.S. want the North to apologize for the series of provocations and show sincerity in its denuclearization, especially after Pyongyang’s revelation of a uranium program that can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

In a statement, Richardson said he was invited by Kim Gye-gwan, chief nuclear envoy and first vice foreign minister.

“I am increasingly concerned about the recent actions by the North Koreans, which have raised tensions and are contributing to instability on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “I am not carrying any messages, but I want to be helpful during this volatile period. If I can contribute to the easing of tension on the peninsula, the trip will be well worth it.”

The Obama administration reportedly refused to give a green light to Richardson’s request to visit Pyongyang in July to avoid sending the wrong signal to North Korea, blamed for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March that killed 46 sailors in the Yellow Sea.

Former President Carter, instead, visited Pyongyang in August to bring back Aijalon Gomes of Boston, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined about $700,000 for illegal entry in January.

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