x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Former US governor and Google boss begin mission in North Korea

Mystery trip may include efforts to free jailed American.

SEOUL // Google's executive chairman and and a former US governor began a controversial private mission to North Korea yesterday that may include an effort to secure the release of an jailed American.

The trip comes after North Korea carried out a long-range rocket test last month, and as satellite imagery suggests the reclusive state is continuing work on its nuclear-testing facilities, potentially paving the way for a third nuclear-bomb test.

The South Korean broadcaster, MBC, said the delegation - comprising Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, his daughter, Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, and Jared Cohen, a Google executive - was due to travel to Pyongyang from Beijing on the North Korean state carrier, Air Koryo. North Korea's KCNA state news agency later said they had arrived but gave no further details.

The mission has been criticised by the White House because of the sensitivity of the timing.

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and the isolated and impoverished state remains technically at war with South Korea.

South Korea is in the midst of a transition to a new president, who will take office in February, while Japan has a new prime minister.

A US official said the trip's timing was particularly bad from the Obama administration's point of view because it comes while the UN Security Council is pondering how to respond to North Korea's missile launch on December 12.

"We are in kind of a classical provocation period with North Korea," said the official. "Usually, their missile launches are followed by nuclear tests.

"During these periods, it's very important that the international community come together, certainly at the level of the UN Security Council, to demonstrate to North Korea that they pay a price for not living up to their obligations."

Mr Richardson, a former ambassador to the UN, has made numerous trips to North Korea. The purpose of this trip and the reasons for Mr Schmidt's involvement were not clear, though Google characterised it as "personal" travel.

Many observers expect Mr Richardson to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour guide who was detained last year.

Mr Richardson said last week he had been contacted by Mr Bae's family and that he would raise the issue while in North Korea.