US presidential candidate Bill Richardson arrived in North Korea yesterday for a rare visit to the country by a prominent American official.
The trip, which has been endorsed by the administration of US President George W. Bush, comes days before a crucial deadline in a recent nuclear disarmament accord.
Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico, said he had no intention of negotiating nuclear matters. The delegation he brings aims to recover the remains of US servicemen killed during the Korean War (1950-53).
Still, he said on the flight to Pyongyang that the timing of the visit is important and will show Pyongyang the United States' good intentions, ahead of Saturday's deadline for North Korea to shut down its main nuclear reactor.
Pyongyang, he said, will understand the symbolism of a delegation that includes Anthony Principi, the former veteran affairs secretary for US President George W. Bush, and Victor Cha, a top adviser on North Korea.
"It could be the signal of an improved relationship," he said of the discussions to secure US remains. "The North Koreans (DPRK) always consider protocol very important. They like to be considered a major power in the region."
Since the breakthrough February 13 nuclear agreement, there has been little progress. The North has refused further negotiations due to the delayed transfer of US$25 million of the government's money frozen by Macao authorities after the US blacklisted a bank in the Chinese administrative region in 2005 for allegedly helping Pyongyang launder money.
Some worry the concerns could delay implementation of the disarmament agreement.
The US State Department said on Friday that a hitch stalling the release of the funds had been resolved, potentially clearing the way for the disbursement of the money. No details were released on when or how the money would be transferred.
Many details of Richardson's schedule in North Korea were unclear, even as he flew to Pyongyang.
Richardson said he requested to meet with top North Korean leaders and to visit the North's sole operating nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang.
On Wednesday, the delegation plans to drive from Pyongyang to South Korea, hopefully with the US remains.
However, Richardson said the way the North typically operates made it difficult to predict how the trip would go.
"They never tell you the schedule until you arrive," said Richardson, on his sixth trip to North Korea.
Richardson has regularly made diplomatic trips, often on his own initiative, to a number of countries at odds with the United States.
(China Daily April 9, 2007)