SEOUL Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt began a controversial private mission to North Korea on Monday that may include an effort to secure the release of an imprisoned American, media reported.
The trip comes after North Korea carried out a long range rocket test last month and as the reclusive state continues work on its nuclear testing facilities according to satellite imagery, potentially paving the way for a third nuclear bomb test.
South Korean broadcaster MBC said the delegation comprising Schmidt, his daughter, Richardson and Google executive Jared Cohen were due to travel to Pyongyang from Beijing on North Korean state carrier Air Koryo.
North Korea's KCNA state news agency later said they had arrived. It gave no details.
The mission has been criticised by the White House due to 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, another major U.S. ally in the region, has a new prime minister.
A U.S. official said the trip's timing was particularly bad from the Obama administration's point of view because it comes as the U.N. Security Council ponders how to respond to North Korea's December 12 missile launch.
"We are in kind of a classical provocation period with North Korea. Usually, their missile launches are followed by nuclear tests," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"During these periods, it's very important that the international community come together, certainly at the level of the U.N. Security Council, to demonstrate to North Korea that they pay a price for not living up to their obligations," the official add
Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has made numerous trips to North Korea. The purpose of next week's trip and the reasons for Schmidt's involvement are not clear, though Google characterized it as "personal" travel.
Schmidt did not respond to requests for comment.
Many observers expect Richardson to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour guide who was detained last year. Richardson told CBS television last Friday that he had been contacted by Bae's family and that he would raise the issue while in North Korea.
North Korea has used the detention of American citizens to secure high-profile visits from U.S. officials in the past.
Its most notable success was a visit from former President Bill Clinton in 2009 to secure the release of two American journalists.
Last year, Jared and Schmidt met defectors from North Korea, a state that ranks bottom of Reporters Without Borders annual survey of Internet and press freedom.
Media reports and think tanks say that officials from the North Korean government went to Google's headquarters in 2011, something the U.S. technology giant has not commented on. (Additional reporting by Cho Meeyoung and WASHINGTON Bureau; Editing by Michael Perry)