The US State Department has expressed concern about the trip, coming just a month after Pyongyang's widely criticised rocket launch.
Speaking en route to Pyongyang, Mr Richardson said the pair's main aim aim would be to secure the release of an American citizen of Korean descent who was arrested in November - and that they were travelling as private citizens.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speakers: Andrew O'Neill, director of the Griffith Asia Institute
O'NEILL: Under various administrations in the past, Washington has made it clear that it doesn't necessarily support high level visits. I mean clearly Richardson has been to North Korea on a number of occasions. He represented the Clinton administration during a fairly delicate period in bilateral negotiations with the DPRK, so he has an established background in dealing with the regime in Pyongyang. He's clearly one of the Western former officials that the regime trusts or at least is willing to deal with in a public way. Washington clearly I think also wants to keep this at a second track level in a sense that if the visit is unsuccessful, if it doesn't produce anything, then the Obama administration can easily claim that they didn't support the visit, they didn't invest any political capital in the visit.
But, at the same time I think, it's clear also that the Obama administration hasn't acted directly to prevent or seriously dissuade Richardson from visiting North Korea. I mean he has a background in dealing with the regime, he is quite influential in the Democratic Party itself, he's a former cabinet secretary, Secretary of Energy under the Clinton administration. So clearly, the Obama administration isn't willing to invest any capital in this, but at the same time, if Richardson does manage to pull off some sort of deal with the regime in Pyongyang, I think it's clear that, a bit like former president Jimmy Carter's visits during the Clinton administration. I think Washington would still be wanting to exploit any successes that come out of this visit.
COCHRANE: That would perhaps explain Bill Richardson's role in this visit. The other party, Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google, is perhaps another case again. And broadly speaking, do you think this might have something to do with North Korea opening up in a technological way or what do you think could be behind his visit?
O'NEILL: Yeah, I mean that's a really interesting question. I mean clearly North Korea represents a significant market potentially. I mean there's 22, 23 million people in the DPRK. If the current regime does represent and again it's a pretty big if, but if the Kim Jong Un government represents a watershed shift in North Korean policy, then that opens up a potentially a range of opportunities for large corporations and there's no bigger corporation than Google in terms of what it could harvest in terms of investment in IT, in a range of internet related investments in North Korea. So clearly there is huge market potential there and a lot of Western firms. It's a little bit like the recent example with Burma, Western firms have actually paid quite an important role influencing government policy because they do see significant market opportunities into the future. It may not be this year, it may not be even in five or ten years time, but beyond that. There's significant opportunities there for corporations like Google. So clearly, there are a range of motives at play.
And in the case of Bill Richardson and the US-Korean citizen, again there's a long history of people like Jimmy Carter and others travelling to North Korea to negotiate the lease in most cases quite successfully of US citizens of Korean descent, many of whom are Christian missionaries working on behalf of NGOs in North Korea.