|South Korean soldiers patrolled the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, where tensions still remain high.
China sends top envoy to talk with N. Korea’s Kim Jong Il
US governor set to visit in moves to ease tensions
SEOUL — Diplomacy finally showed signs of life on the Korean peninsula yesterday, two weeks after North Korea shelled the South. China got off the sidelines and sent a top envoy to meet with Kim Jong Il, and an American governor whose visits have led to breakthroughs in the past announced a new trip.
As both Koreas continued to carry out military maneuvers, regional powers balanced shows of support for their allies with attempts to negotiate a detente to avert a further escalation of tensions. Four South Koreans died in the Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong Island, the first to target a civilian area since the Korean War.
Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Beijing’s top foreign policy official, turned up in Pyongyang for warm and friendly talks with the North’s leader Kim yesterday, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The meeting — shown in photos with the two sharing smiles and handshakes — comes a day after the top American military officer slammed China for appearing unwilling to wade into the fray. Beijing has called for calm on both sides but has done little to rein in North Korea, despite being the only country that wields any significant influence over the regime.
China fought on North Korea’s side during the Korean War and has remained the nation’s only major ally as well as its main supplier of economic aid and diplomatic support.
China’s move was met by another promising one from the United States, which has spent the past two weeks denouncing the shelling, vowing not to reward the North for bad behavior, and reiterating its commitment to ally South Korea. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico announced he would travel to North Korea next week.
“If I can contribute to the easing of tension on the peninsula, the trip will be well worth it,’’ Richardson said in a statement Wednesday.
While the trip is an unofficial one — meaning Richardson is not serving as Washington’s envoy — such visits are essentially the only way the two countries can speak. Pyongyang and Washington, which fought on opposite sides of the Korean conflict, do not have diplomatic relations, and the US position is that it will not engage directly with North Korea until it takes concrete steps to dismantle its nuclear program.
In August 2009, former President Bill Clinton’s humanitarian mission to rescue two jailed American journalists provided an opening that led to a warming of relations.
“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.
Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has served as a high-profile roving diplomatic envoy for several US presidents. He has nurtured a special interest in North Korea — and a rapport with top North Korean officials — over the years.
He has helped win the release of Americans held in North Korea and in 2007 traveled to Pyongyang to recover the remains of US servicemen killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
In a 2005 autobiography, Richardson wrote that repeated visits led to a mutual trust and respect, even during tense negotiations, and North Korean officials once visited him in New Mexico.
“They apparently thought of me as an honest broker, someone they could trust as a negotiating partner or an intermediary or both,’’ Richardson wrote.
P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said Richardson would not be carrying any message from the Obama administration.
The United States and South Korea have been staunch allies since the Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The United States has 28,500 troops in the South to protect it from aggression.