Gates to visit Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing in Jan.

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Gates to visit Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing in Jan.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit South Korea next month to discuss enhancing the two countries’ alliance, the Pentagon said Monday.

Gates will meet with Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin while in Seoul on Jan. 14, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said, adding they will discuss ways to “address the threats posed by North Korean provocations and its nuclear and missile programs.”

The chief U.S. defense official will also travel to Beijing and Tokyo, Morrell said.

The visit comes amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island last month.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who traveled to Pyongyang earlier this month to help ease tensions, briefed the State Department on his trip to North Korea, the department said.

“Governor Richardson had called Deputy Secretary James Steinberg on Dec. 23,” deputy spokesman Mark Toner said in a conference call with reporters.

“U.S. citizens are free to travel to North Korea in a private capacity. It’s not for us to give approval.”

Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in New York, returned from a week-long trip to North Korea last week amid rising tensions after North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and a series of military drills by South Korea, conducted in a show of force against further provocations.

The North has proposed a series of rapprochement measures to Richardson.

Among them are the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, negotiations for the sale of 12,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and the establishment of a military commission consisting of representatives from the two Koreas and the U.S., and an inter-Korean military hotline to prevent conflicts in the disputed western sea border.

“Our policy remains the same,” Toner said, “But obviously we welcome the input of individuals, private American citizens, with his level of expertise and knowledge.”

North Korea will be among the topics at a summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao on Jan. 19, U.S. officials said.

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