A visit to North Korea by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google chairman Eric Schmidt could harm U.S. efforts to sanction the dictatorship for refusing to curb its nuclear program and missile production, Korea experts say.
The U.S. State Department complained Monday that the visit by Richardson and Schmidt was poorly timed given that the United States is trying to persuade the United Nations to further sanction North Korea.
"We think the timing is ill-advised," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The reason for State's objection is that North Korea and its allies in China will use the visit to convey "an image of openness and receptivity to the outside," said Evans Revere, the State Department's deputy chief negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton administration.
The visit helps the regime "convey a sense of legitimacy and international recognition and acceptance to its own people" at the very moment that the State Department is preparing to respond with sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, Revere said.
Richardson described the visit as "a private humanitarian mission." He said he hoped to meet with U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, who was born in South Korea and arrested in North Korea during a tourist visit in November.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has traveled to North Korea at least twice before to seek the release of American detainees.
Schmidt heads one of the world's richest companies, and Google ranks 73rd on Forbes' list of 500 top companies. He is part of a delegation that will spend four days in the nation but has yet to say what he is doing there and whom he will meet.
He is due to arrive in China on Thursday, and Richardson says he expects to hold a news conference then.
Schmidt characterizes himself as an advocate for the freedom of information worldwide. He is traveling with Jared Cohen, head of Google Ideas, the company's think tank, with whom Schmidt is writing a book about how the Internet is changing the world.
The Internet is banned in North Korea. The country has no independent media, popular elections do not exist and the government is among the most repressive in the world. By contrast, South Korea has among the highest rates of Internet access in the world and a market economy that is fully integrated into the global economy.
A private visit to North Korea is not illegal, though goods, services and technology from North Korea may not be imported into the USA without a license from the Treasury Department.
The visit comes in the wake of a series of hostile North Korean actions and threats toward the United States and its allies, among them an attack in 2010 on a South Korean warship and an artillery bombardment on the South's Yeonpyeong Island that killed four people that same year.
In December, the North defied warnings from the United States and other nations and launched an alleged weather satellite that the United States suspects was a test for an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching U.S. shores. The North has refused to abide by its obligations under international treaties to open up its nuclear facilities to inspection.
The North Koreans have launched a campaign of more friendly signals over the past few weeks toward South Korea, Japan and the United States, countries that have given assistance to North Korea when it agreed to negotiate with them.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's Day speech included statements on improving the North's economy and called for reunification with South Korea.
Revere says Richardson and Schmidt's visit "is smartly used by the North Koreans to communicate an atmosphere of openness and willingness to re-engage with the United States and others."
Bruce Klingner, a former chief of the CIA's Korea branch who is at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says China is likely to seize on the visit as an argument against new U.N. Security Council sanctions.
"China would say North Korea is showing it's more open, so it would be counterproductive to put penalties on them when they're showing they're turning over a new leaf," Klingner said.
The problem, he and Revere said, is that no real evidence exists that North Korea is reforming.
For the world's most reclusive regime to open up to Google "would go against 60 years of history in North Korea," Klingner said.
Roger Yu contributed.