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In North Korea, New Mexico governor says situation is a 'tinderbox'

By the CNN Wire Staff
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is welcomed by an unidentified North Korean official upon his arrival at the Pyongyang Airport on December 16.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is welcomed by an unidentified North Korean official upon his arrival at the Pyongyang Airport on December 16.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richardson says he hopes to calm tensions
  • The governor is scheduled to meet with top nuclear and military leaders
  • He urges restraint "on all sides"

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Saturday he is concerned about escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, where he is urging "maximum" restraint ahead of scheduled military exercises.

"This is a tinderbox," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who is traveling with the governor in North Korea. "Right now, my objective is to say -- tamp things down."

Both Koreas have traded tough talk and conducted aggressive military drills in the weeks after North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month.

The tough talk continued Friday as North Korea warned it would launch a military strike against the South if Seoul goes ahead with live-fire drills near Yeonpyeong Island during the next few days, North Korea's state-run KCNA reported.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday that the exercises would take place in the seas southwest of the island between December 18 and 21.

Blitzer: Everyone's trying to avoid war
Richardson meets N. Korean officials
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Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador, arrived in North Korea Thursday on a four-day trip he hopes will help to ease tensions in the region.

"Let's cool things down. No response. Let the exercises take place," said Richardson, who added: "On all sides, I'm urging restraint."

He met with a vice minister of North Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday and is scheduled to meet with North Korea's senior nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan on Saturday. The governor is also expected to meet with a top military leader while in North Korea, though he did not say who.

"Meeting a top military person is significant," said Richardson, who has hosted a North Korean delegation in New Mexico in the past. "Hopefully, we can keep things from firing up."

"My sense from the North Koreans is they are trying to find ways to tamp this down ... Maybe that will continue today. That's my hope," he said.

Richardson is not in North Korea as an official U.S. envoy.

Tensions mounted between the Koreas on November 23, when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, which lies in South Korean territory. The attack killed two marines and two civilians and injured 18 people.

The North has accused the South of provoking the attack because shells from a South Korean military drill landed in the North's waters.

Last month's attack was the first direct artillery assault on South Korea since 1953, when an armistice ended fighting.

The U.S. military has said it is concerned that South Korea's scheduled exercises could spark an uncontrollable clash with the North, but the State Department said the exercises are not meant to be threatening or provocative.

Still, the Obama administration and South Korea have established contingency communication plans in the event North Korea retaliates against the South for holding military exercises, a U.S. military official said Friday.

The scheduled South Korea exercise has sparked concern from Washington to Moscow. Russia asked South Korea to cancel the drills after North Korea vowed to strike back if they proceed.

"It's obviously a very, very tense situation," said CNN's Blitzer. "People are very very worried that one miscalculation could cause a disaster."

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