SEOUL, July 19, 2010 (AFP) - A South Korean newspaper said Monday that US President Barack Obama may send an envoy to North Korea to break the impasse in relations.
Obama is considering allowing New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson -- a veteran troubleshooter with the North -- to accept an invitation to visit Pyongyang, according to the JoongAng Ilbo and its English-language sister paper JoongAng Daily.
The JoongAng Daily, quoting "multiple diplomatic sources" in Seoul, said Han Song-Ryol, deputy North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, invited Richardson in May to discuss issues including the sinking of a South Korean warship.
South Korea's foreign ministry declined comment.
But spokesman Kim Young-Sun called for caution over any such visit while countermeasures are being discussed for the sinking. "We understand the US government shares the same position," he said.
Tensions have risen since South Korea and the United States, citing the findings of a multinational investigation, accused the North of torpedoing a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, near the tense sea border in March.
The North denies involvement and says a UN Security Council statement on July 9 -- which condemned the attack without specifying the culprit -- vindicated it.
After the UN statement it reiterated conditional willingness to return to stalled six-party nuclear disarmament talks.
"I’m aware that the North Korean side told Richardson it is willing to consider expressing regrets or making an ameliorating statement about the Cheonan incident if he visits Pyongyang," the JoongAng Daily quoted one source as saying.
"The North Korean government is seeking a chance to turn around the situation through Richardson since it’s been driven into a corner after the Cheonan attack."
The paper quoted the source as saying the communist state's tactics resemble its handling of the case of two detained US journalists. They were freed last August after former US President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang.
The source said Richardson had told the White House he strongly wants to visit Pyongyang, but South Korea believed this was premature until the North admits involvement in the sinking.
Since the UN statement, the source said, "the Obama government is now taking a forward-looking position and it recently informed the South Korean government that 'It’s hard to continuously block Richardson’s Pyongyang visit'."
The last US official to visit Pyongyang was Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, who went there last December.
Richardson has visited Pyongyang numerous times. In 1996 he negotiated the release of an American who swam across a border river and was jailed for spying.
In 2007 he discussed the repatriation of the remains of US soldiers who fought in the Korean War.