Former Clinton administration cabinet member Bill Richardson goes to North Korea next week for talks aimed at advancing diplomatic efforts to end that country's nuclear weapons program. Mr. Richardson, now governor of the state of New Mexico, is traveling as a private citizen, but with the apparent blessing of the Bush administration.
State Department officials say Mr. Richardson is not traveling as an official U.S. representative or carrying any formal message to North Korean authorities.
However, he has consulted about the mission with the Bush administration, which in an unusual move, is providing him with a U.S. Air Force plane for the trip.
Mr. Richardson was United Nations ambassador and Secretary of Energy under former President Clinton and is among the most prominent U.S. figures to visit North Korea in recent years.
As a Democratic member of Congress in the 1990s, Mr. Richardson made several trips to North Korea, and his upcoming mission comes at a key juncture in international diplomatic efforts to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program.
The latest round of Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on the issue, which ended in mid-September, produced a statement of principles under which Pyongyang would disarm in exchange for aid and security guarantees.
The talks are supposed to resume in November, at which time diplomats will try to tackle the difficult issue of the sequencing of a disarmament accord.
In a statement, Mr. Richardson said he is not an official envoy, but is supportive of what he said is the Bush administration's new policy of engaging North Korea through dialogue and diplomacy.
He said North Korea is now "at a crossroads" and should take advantage of the goal of the six-party talks, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, to advance its own interest in reviving its economy and providing a better life for its people.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said Mr. Richardson consulted senior officials about his travel plans and was briefed on the state of the nuclear talks in what he said were "collegial" discussions.
The spokesman said the Bush administration is not worried that Mr. Richardson might undercut the negotiations, and in fact believes the mission will complement current U.S. diplomacy.
"That's not a concern, frankly," he said. "I think as a result of our discussions with Governor Richardson we both share an interest in seeing North Korea make the right decision in ending its nuclear program and choosing a path of reintegration with the international community."
The New York Times quoted officials in Mr. Richardson's office Friday as saying that the governor had been invited to visit North Korea twice earlier this year, but that the Bush administration declined to give its approval because of the delicate state of the six-party process.
The newspaper said Mr. Richardson would arrive in North Korea Monday for three days of talks, along with a delegation including experts from New Mexico in such areas as energy, heart disease, and agriculture.
He is to visit South Korea and Japan at the end of the trip and brief administration officials on his return to the United States.
The six-party talks, under way since 2003, include South Korea, Japan and Russia as well as the United States, North Korea and host China.
Under the envisaged agreement, North Korea would scrap its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and aid from other parties to the talks, notably including large-scale electricity supplies from South Korea.
But the timing and verification of such a process as it unfolds remain problematic, as is North Korea's often-repeated demand for a light-water nuclear power reactor.
The United States has said no one is prepared to pay the multi-billion dollar cost of such a facility, and that in any case it should be discussed only at an appropriate time after all of North Korea's nuclear activities have ceased.