ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AP) _ New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson left Saturday with a delegation of past and present U.S. officials for North Korea, where he hopes to reclaim the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War.
The four-day trip also is meant to draw attention to the Democrat's underdog bid for the presidency and to highlight his foreign policy experience, which includes negotiating trips to hot spots around the world and serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during President Bill Clinton's administration.
As with many of Richardson's freelance diplomatic missions, this one benefits from fortunate timing. Endorsed by President George W. Bush's Republican administration, it comes days before a crucial deadline in a landmark nuclear accord the North agreed to in February, four months after testing a nuclear weapon.
Many will be watching to see whether Richardson brings back any new details on potential progress on a North Korean pledge to close down and seal its main nuclear plant and allow in U.N. nuclear inspectors by April 14.
The delegation flew to Pyongyang on a U.S. government aircraft and was scheduled to arrive Sunday. It briefly stopped in Alaska, where Richardson met with military personnel from New Mexico.
Accompanying Richardson are Bush's top adviser on North Korea, Victor Cha; Anthony Principi, the former veteran affairs secretary for Bush; and James McDougal, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
The Bush administration has made clear that the focus of the trip is on the expected transfer of U.S. remains, and Richardson says he is not planning to negotiate nuclear matters.
But analysts say Richardson's visit might still help ease tensions between the North and the United States.
``Richardson is someone who the North Koreans actually seem to listen to and have confidence in,'' said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank. ``It's probably a useful gesture, a way to deliver a message that here's bipartisan support for moving forward.''
Since the breakthrough Feb. 13 nuclear agreement, there has been little progress. The North is angry about a delayed transfer of $25 million in North Korean money frozen by Macau authorities after the U.S. blacklisted a bank in that Chinese administrative region in 2005 for allegedly helping Pyongyang launder money.
Some worry the concerns could delay implementation of the disarmament agreement.
The State Department said Friday that a hitch stalling the release of the funds had been resolved, potentially clearing the way for the disbursement of the money. No details were released on when or how the money would be transferred.
Richardson has regularly made diplomatic trips, often on his own initiative, to a number of countries at odds with the United States. He has built a special rapport with North Korean officials _ this will be his sixth visit there.