BEIJING — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson left Beijing for North Korea on Thursday as part of stepped-up U.S. diplomacy to cool tensions on the Korean peninsula. The governor, a frequent unofficial U.S. envoy to the North, said he expects to be given a message by officials in Pyongyang.
Richardson's stopover Thursday came shortly before talks in the Chinese capital between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo. Beijing's top foreign policy official returned last week from talks in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Richardson's private trip comes amid increased fears of war on the divided Korean peninsula since North Korean bombarded a South Korean front-line island last month, killing four people. A former U.N. ambassador, Richardson often has been an unofficial diplomatic troubleshooter, including missions to secure the release of hostages in Sudan, Iraq and North Korea.
"My hope is that they provide messages that will lower tensions on the Korean peninsula. My message to them will be we need peace, we need to stop some of these aggressive actions, especially with respect to South Korea," Richardson said at the Beijing airport before flying to Pyongyang.
Richardson, who has made more than half a dozen trips to North Korea, said "when they call me they always want to send a message of some kind." Previous missions have resulted in the release of Americans held in the North and the return of the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Richardson said he does not know who he will meet yet, but said he had requested a visit to the North's main nuclear facility at Yongbyon. The Democratic governor, who leaves office at the end of the month, was invited to North Korea by Kim Gye Gwan, the country's chief negotiator in stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. He is expected to return to Beijing on Monday.
The State Department has said Richardson isn't delivering a message to North Korea for the U.S. government. However, Richardson's contacts with North Korean officials may provide insights for diplomats trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Richardson said he would encourage North Korea to engage in some renewed form of dialogue, but would not be putting forward any specific framework.
"Some kind of negotiations need to take place. We're going to explore what makes sense but the objective here is to try to persuade them to stop some of these strong actions that they've taken," Richardson said.
Pyongyang is believed to be seeking bilateral talks with the U.S. before returning to the six-nation negotiations hosted by China and also grouping South Korea, Japan, and Russia.
Richardson said he would talk to President Barack Obama's administration when he returns.
His trip and Steinberg's meeting Dai in Beijing come amid stepped-up diplomatic moves by the United States and regional powers under which China has come under growing pressure to push ally North Korea to change its behavior.
The meetings also come before President Hu Jintao makes an official visit to Washington next month.
The Nov. 23 artillery bombardment of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island was North Korea's first assault targeting a civilian area since the end of the Korean War. Both Koreas accuse each other of staging the first provocation. The North claims that South Korea fired artillery toward its territorial waters, while South Korea says it launched shells southward, not toward North Korea, as part of routine exercises.