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North Korea invites Bill Richardson to visit: What message is it sending?

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Such visits can deliver insight into the North’s motivations in the absence of a diplomatic dialogue, he says, while providing the North Koreans with a realistic if unofficial description of US positions.

Tensions have soared in the region since North Korea spurred an exchange of artillery with the South in late November by shelling an island along the two countries' disputed sea border. The incident was regarded as the worst in the region since the end of the Korean War.

Richardson’s office announced this week that he would leave Dec. 14 on a seven-day trip to North Korea, at the invitation of the North’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan. Richardson, who is no stranger to the North Koreans, said in a statement, “I am increasingly concerned with the recent actions by the North Koreans, which have raised tensions and are contributing to instability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Richardson’s last trip to Pyongyang was in 2007, when he returned with the remains of US servicemen killed in the Korean War.

The State Department was emphatic this week that Richardson’s visit in no way constitutes US government business, underscoring the US position that official diplomatic engagement with the North will only resume once the North’s provocations cease and it recommits to serious negotiations on its nuclear program.

But at the same time, officials say they expect the usual pattern of “high-level visitors” to the North reporting back to Washington to be followed in this case.

President Carter … debriefed the secretary [of State] in the aftermath of his visit,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley this week. “I would expect Governor Richardson to report back after he’s done,” he said, adding that the governor “will not be carrying a message from the United States Government.”

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