Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations who for years has served as a roving diplomatic troubleshooter, will visit North Korea next week in a trip that was announced hours before the North's Kim Jong Il met in Pyongyang with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
Kim and Dai held held "warm and friendly" talks, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported, without saying whether the two discussed the North's Nov. 23 artillery attack on an island near the Koreas' disputed sea border. The barrage killed four South Koreans, including two civilians.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said the two reached consensus on the situation on the Korean peninsula during candid and in-depth talks, but did not elaborate. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu confirmed the meeting took place but said she had no information about what was said.
The meeting comes amid mounting international pressure on China, North Korea's only major ally, to step in and defuse tensions.
Communist North Korea depends heavily on neighboring China for economic assistance and diplomatic support. China fought on North Korea's side during the Korean War.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday in Tokyo that Beijing must do more to push North Korea away from escalating threats of an all-out war, which he said would be calamitous.
"China must lead and guide North Korea to a better future," Mullen, the top U.S. military official, said a day after a high-profile visit to Seoul, where he also pressed for China to intervene to prevent another provocation.
Despite the diplomatic flurry, North Korea reiterated its claim Thursday to the waters around the South Korean island it shelled and accused the United States of orchestrating the crisis.
The Korean peninsula remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. A heavily fortified border divides the two Koreas.
North Korea does not recognize the maritime border drawn by the United Nations at the close of the war, and considers the waters around five front-line islands occupied by South Korea to be its territory.
North Korea's Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said last month's shelling was the result of "a deliberate provocation of the puppet forces," a reference to U.S.-allied South Korea, which was carrying out live-fire drills at the time.
The committee also accused the United States of being a "wire-puller and chieftain of the incident," according to state media.
Richardson's announcement of his trip to Pyongyang raised hopes of a diplomatic resolution of the escalating tensions. He is to depart from the U.S. next Tuesday.
Richardson has made regular diplomatic visits to North Korea and has also hosted North Korean officials in New Mexico. He helped win the release of Americans held in North Korea in the 1990s and traveled to Pyongyang in 2007 to recover remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the Korean War.
Richardson said in a statement that he is worried about the North's actions.
"If I can contribute to the easing of tension on the peninsula, the trip will be well worth it," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Richardson will not carry any message from the U.S. government.
However, Richardson will likely be briefed before he goes and then report back to the State Department after returning, and the visit could help ease tensions.
"By inviting Richardson, North Korea sent a message to the outside world that it does not want crisis, and it wants to resume six-nation nuclear talks," said Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korean affairs at Seoul's Dongguk University.
North Korea had been engaged in negotiations with the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China on dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil and other concessions. However, it walked away from the talks last year, and recently disclosed a new uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second way to make atomic bombs in addition to plutonium.
Source: The Associated Press