Veteran US troubleshooter, Bill Richardson said on Thursday, he hoped he could "make a difference" as he headed to North Korea amid tensions inflamed by Pyongyang's shelling of a South Korean island last month. Richardson's visit comes as South Korea announced a reshuffle of its military, aimed to boost the strength of its defences against the North, after fierce domestic criticism that its response to the shelling attack was weak.
"We are heading to North Korea in hopes of bringing peace. My message is that we need to persuade them to stop some of the aggressive actions that North Korea has taken," Richardson told reporters at Beijing's airport. "I hope I can help out. I hope I can make a difference." Richardson, the New Mexico Governor and former US ambassador to the United Nations, has travelled to North Korea several times in the past. He is slated to leave Beijing later on Thursday for Pyongyang and due back in China on Monday.
The private visit comes after the North's deadly shelling of a South Korean border island on November 23 this year and revelations of an extensive uranium enrichment programme, both of which have stirred global alarm and regional tensions. South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper, quoting intelligence sources, reported on Wednesday that the North had dug a tunnel more than 500 metres deep at its nuclear test site in possible preparation for a potential third test next year.
Richardson -- who was invited to North Korea by Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea's Chief Nuclear Negotiator -- said he hoped to visit the country's main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, where the North is apparently building a new reactor. "Whenever the North Koreans contact me, they always want to send a message of some kind. My hope is that they provide messages that can lessen tensions on the Korean peninsula," he told reporters. "Some kind of negotiations need to take place. We will explore what makes sense," he added, noting that he also hoped to convince Pyongyang to honour its previous commitments to abandon its nuclear drive.
Richardson -- also a former Energy Secretary in the administration of former US President Bill Clinton -- reiterated that his mission was a private one, and he was not an emissary of the administration of US President Barack Obama. Richardson travelled twice to North Korea in the 1990s to secure the release of US prisoners and visited there again in April, 2007 to bring back the remains of American servicemen killed during the Korean War.
A veteran Democratic politician, the prominent Hispanic American made a failed bid for the Presidency in 2008. Diplomats from countries involved in a six nation effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear capability have been touring the region to discuss a response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, which killed four including two civilians. Notably, it was the first attack on civilian populated areas since the 1950-53 war.
The South's Defence Ministry on Thursday announced promotions for 111 officers -- 75 from the Army, 14 from the Navy and 22 from the Air Force -- after it promised to retaliate with air strikes in the event of another attack. China, the North's sole major ally, has called for emergency talks between members of a six party forum on the North's nuclear disarmament.
But the United States, South Korea and Japan -- which have staged a series of military exercises in the region in recent weeks -- snubbed the offer, instead holding talks on their own, early this month in Washington. The South's nuclear envoy has ruled out talks with the North at present and called for greater international pressure on Pyongyang to stop its armed provocations, Yonhap news agency reported from Moscow. It quoted envoy Wi Sung Lac as saying on Wednesday, that he made that point clear when he met his Russian counterpart Alexei Borodavkin. Moscow denounced the shelling but called for dialogue, Wi said. US Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg was to meet with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, the country's most senior foreign policy maker, on Thursday as part of a three day visit to Beijing to press for firmer action.