A veteran US troubleshooter, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, arrived in North Korea yesterday saying he hoped he could “make a difference” as Seoul announced plans for a live-fire drill on a key frontline island.
Richardson’s visit comes less than a month after the North sparked global alarm and racked up regional tensions with its deadly shelling of the South’s Yeon-pyeong Island and revelations of an extensive uranium enrichment program.
South Korea yesterday announced a major reshuffle of its military aimed at boosting the strength of its defenses against the North after fierce domestic criticism that its response to the Nov. 23 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 in Beijing. “I hope I can help out. I hope I can make a difference.”
Richardson, a former US ambassador to the UN, who has traveled to North Korea several times in the past, arrived in Pyongyang later in the day, Chinese state media said. He is due back in China on Monday.
Richardson — who was invited to North Korea by Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator — said that he hoped Pyongyang would help tamp down mounting tensions.
“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,” Richardson 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 honor its previous commitments to abandon its nuclear drive.
Richardson said he hoped to visit the country’s main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, where the North is apparently building a new reactor.
Richardson reiterated that his mission was a private one and he was not an emissary of the administration of US President Barack Obama.
While Richardson was en route to the North, Seoul’s military said it would stage a live-fire artillery exercise on Yeonpyeong Island some time between Saturday and Tuesday, depending on weather and “other relevant conditions.”
It will be the first exercise of its kind on the island since the attack.
The US-led UN Command said about 20 US soldiers would attend the drill to provide medical and communications services and assist in intelligence analysis.
The South Korean military said guns during the upcoming drill would be aimed away from the North.
“We will react firmly and strongly to any fresh North Korean provocations,” said Lee Boong-woo, spokesman for the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The South’s defense ministry 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.