SEOUL, South Korea — Diplomacy is showing signs of life on the Korean peninsula, two weeks after North Korea shelled its neighbor. China, under intense international pressure, sent a top envoy to meet with Kim Jong Il, and an American governor whose past visits have led to warmer ties announced a new trip to the North.
As both Koreas continued to carry out military maneuvers, regional powers balanced shows of support for their allies with attempts to negotiate a detente to avert a further escalation of tensions. Four South Koreans died in the Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong Island, the first to target a civilian area since the Korean War.
Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Beijing's top foreign policy official, turned up in Pyongyang for "warm and friendly" talks with North Korean leader Kim on Thursday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported.
The meeting — shown in photos with the two sharing smiles and handshakes — came a day after the top American military officer slammed China for appearing unwilling to wade into the fray. Beijing has called for calm on both sides but has done little to rein in North Korea, despite having deep ties with Pyongyang.
China fought on North Korea's side during the Korean War, and has remained the nation's only major ally as well as its main supplier of economic aid and diplomatic support.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Thursday that Dai's visit with Kim "is quite fortuitous." A delegation headed by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, the No. 2 U.S. diplomat, will have talks in China next week on North Korea.
"We look forward to getting a readout of Chairman Dai's meetings in Pyongyang," Crowley said.
China's move was met by another potentially promising one from a prominent American. The United States has spent the past two weeks denouncing the shelling, vowing not to reward the North for bad behavior and reiterating its commitment to ally South Korea. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced that he would travel to North Korea next week.
"If I can contribute to the easing of tension on the peninsula, the trip will be well worth it," the governor said in a statement.
While the trip is an unofficial one — meaning Richardson is not serving as Washington's envoy — such visits are an important way for the two countries to communicate. Pyongyang and Washington, which fought on opposite sides of the Korean conflict, do not have diplomatic relations, and the U.S. position is that it won't engage directly with North Korea until it takes concrete steps to dismantle its nuclear program.
In August 2009, former President Bill Clinton's humanitarian mission to rescue two jailed American journalists provided an opening that led to a warming of relations after months of tensions.
"By inviting Richardson, North Korea sent a message to the outside world that it does not want crisis, and it wants to resume six-nation nuclear talks," said Kim Yong-hyun, an analyst on North Korean affairs at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has served as a high-profile roving diplomatic envoy for several U.S. presidents. He has nurtured a special interest in North Korea — and a rapport with top North Korean officials — over the years.
He has helped win the release of Americans held in North Korea and in 2007 traveled to Pyongyang to recover the remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
In a 2005 autobiography, Richardson wrote that repeated visits led to a mutual trust and respect, even during tense negotiations. North Korean officials have paid him visits in New Mexico.
"They apparently thought of me as an honest broker, someone they could trust as a negotiating partner or an intermediary or both," Richardson wrote.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Richardson would not be carrying any message from the Obama administration, but noted that he would probably be briefed before his trip and report back upon his return.