New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson arrived in North Korea today on an what Pyongyang acknowledged was an "unofficial" visit for talks with government officials. “So nice to see you,” said a North Korean official in English to Richardson, who has already visited the reclusive country several times.
Yet the tensions on the divided peninsula are far less welcoming. The North today threatened even more aggressive retaliation than the deadly shelling in November that killed two soldiers and two civilians if the South carries out its plans to hold live fire drills on the Yeonpyeong island, the scene of last month's attack. The South is slated to carry out the daylong drills—which the U.S. supports-- over the next few days.
Richardson, who has insisted that he carries no formal messages from Washington, began a series of meetings with senior diplomats in Pyongyang today. “My objective is to try to ratchet down the North Korean actions, to see if there's a way that we can get a framework for some kind of discussions,” the Democratic governor said on CNN before leaving. “I am extremely concerned because [of] the rhetoric and the actions of the North Koreans, the tenseness on all sides.”
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. James Cartwright, warned Thursday of the possibility of a “chain reaction” if the North responds with violence to the South’s exercises. “What we worry about obviously is . . . if North Korea were to react to that in a negative way and fire back at those firing positions on the islands, that would start potentially a chain reaction,” he told reporters. “What you don’t want to have happen [is for] us to lose control of the escalation.”
Last month, Pyongyang flaunted its new uranium enrichment plant to another visiting American, a scientist who reported that the facility “stunned” him. The site appears to far outpace Iran’s facilities, the New York Times reported this week, and it seems very possible that the plant could only have been built in conjunction with a “sophisticated network of secret sites” or another active uranium plant.
In even more abrasive rhetoric, the North's official website warned today: “If war breaks out, it will lead to nuclear warfare and not be limited to the Korean Peninsula,” the website said, as quoted by the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
Before leaving, Richardson indicated he was hopeful. “I think the situation is so serious right now that maybe a new voice will be able to help the situation,” he said on CNN. “I've been able, in the past, to succeed with the North Koreans, getting them to release American pilots, prisoners, the remains of our soldiers from the Korean War -- get them going into negotiations.”
Richardson has traveled to North Korea in the past to win the release of American citizens accused by the communist country of espionage. He has also been an unofficial envoy to press the North to engage in nuclear disarmament talks. Richardson, who served as a former ambassador to the UN, played host to a North Korean delegation at his Santa Fe governor’s mansion to discuss a disarmament deal—those talks led eventually to the formation of the six-party talks that also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.