Schmidt will be traveling with two figures who have been influential in recent years in developing contacts with North Korea. One of them, Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who served as UN ambassador during the presidency of Bill Clinton, has advocated rapprochement with the North during several visits to Pyongyang.
Key in arranging Schmidt’s visit is assumed to be Richardson’s longtime adviser on North Korea, Tony Namkung, who has visited North Korea more than 40 times during the past 25 years.
Mr. Namkung, born to Korean parents in China and educated in the US, was instrumental in Mr. Clinton’s visit to North Korea in August 2009. That resulted in the release of the journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been held for 140 days after their arrest while filming along the North’s Tumen River border with China. He also advised the Associated Press on opening a bureau in Pyongyang.
Schmidt's mission raised the possibility that he might be the type of high-level visitor to whom North Korea might be willing to release another American now in prison in Pyongyang. Kenneth Bae, a human rights activist from Oregon, was charged with "hostile acts" after entering North Korea legally from China as leader of a tour group to the Rason economic zone in the northeast. A devout Christian, he was believed to have been carrying religious material -- strictly forbidden in the North.
There was no doubt, though, that the overall rationale for the visit would be political, diplomatic and economic -- with a view to relations with the US.