U.S. law restricts American companies' dealings with North Korea, which is subject to tough penalties because of its nuclear and missile programs. Imports of North Korean goods are prohibited, but travel to North Korea, exports of U.S. goods and investment in the country are allowed, subject to some restrictions, such as on exports of luxury goods.
Richardson has been to North Korea at least a half-dozen times since 1994, including two trips to negotiate the release of detained Americans. His last visit was in 2010.
The detainee, Kenneth Bae, is the fifth American held in North Korea in the past four years. That includes two U.S. journalists who were freed in 2009 after former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang and met with then-leader Kim Jong Il. Richardson said it was doubtful he and Schmidt would meet with Kim Jong Un, but he expected to talk with officials from the foreign affairs and economic ministries and the military.
North Korea could show good will by freeing Bae. But detainees risk becoming bargaining chips for the North in its tumultuous relationship with Washington. The U.S. retains nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Kim Jong Un's elevation to leadership after his father's death a year ago offered some hope of better relations. But after agreeing last February to an offer of U.S. food aid in exchange for nuclear concessions, North Korea derailed the deal weeks later when it attempted to launch a satellite atop a rocket that the U.S. believes was a test of ballistic missile capabilities.
Relations were set back further by the latest launch, this time successful, which the North again insisted was for a purely peaceful space program.
In the past year, Kim has made at least stylistic changes that hint at more openness, leading some commentators to call for a fresh outreach by U.S. diplomats. That's something that the nominee for secretary of state, Kerry, might support. But there's still little sign of substantive reform.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for The Associated Press.