New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson left with a delegation of past and present US officials for North Korea, where he hopes to reclaim the remains of US soldiers killed in the Korean War.
The four-day trip is also meant to draw attention to the Democrat's underdog bid for the US presidency and to highlight his foreign policy experience, which includes negotiating trips to hotspots around the world and serving as US ambassador to the UN during president Bill Clinton's administration.
As with many of Richardson's freelance diplomatic missions, this one benefits from fortunate timing. Endorsed by US President George W. Bush' administration, it comes days before a crucial deadline in a landmark nuclear accord the North agreed to in February, four months after testing a nuclear weapon.
Many will be watching to see whether Richardson brings back any new details on potential progress on a North Korean pledge to close down and seal its main nuclear plant and allow in UN nuclear inspectors by Saturday.
The delegation arrived on schedule yesterday, North Korea's official KCNA news agency said.
The plane briefly stopped in Alaska, where Richardson met military personnel from New Mexico.
Accompanying Richardson are Bush's top adviser on North Korea, Victor Cha; Anthony Principi, the former veteran affairs secretary for Bush; and James McDougal, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
The Bush administration has made clear that the focus of the trip is on the expected transfer of US remains and Richardson said he is not planning to negotiate nuclear matters.
But analysts said Richardson's visit might still help ease tensions between the North and the US.
"Richardson is someone who the North Koreans actually seem to listen to and have confidence in," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank. "It's probably a useful gesture, a way to deliver a message that here's bipartisan support for moving forward."
Since the breakthrough Feb. 13 nuclear agreement, little progress has been made. The North is angry about a delayed transfer of US$25 million in North Korean money frozen by Macau authorities after the US blacklisted a bank in the Chinese territory in 2005 for allegedly helping Pyongyang launder money.
Some worry the concerns could delay implementation of the disarmament agreement.
The State Department said on Friday that a hitch stalling the release of the funds had been resolved, potentially clearing the way for the disbursement of the money. No details were released on when or how the money would be transfered.
Richardson has regularly made diplomatic trips, often on his own initiative, to a number of countries at odds with the US. This will be his sixth visit to North Korea.