Former New Mexico governor flies to N. Korea on Monday

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt will start their controversial private mission to North Korea on Monday that may include an effort to secure the release of an imprisoned American, South Korean 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 Mr Schmidt, his daughter, Mr Richardson and Google executive Jared Cohen would leave for Pyongyang on North Korean state carrier Air Koryo on flight CA121 on Monday.

It did not cite any named sources, although another South Korean broadcaster YTN also reported the trip would start on Monday.

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 US ally in the region, has a new prime minister.

A US official said the trip's timing was particularly bad from the Obama administration's point of view because it comes as the UN Security Council ponders how to respond to North Korea's Dec 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 UN Security Council, to demonstrate to North Korea that they pay a price for not living up to their obligations."

The official added that Mr Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has made numerous trips to North Korea. The purpose of his trip and the reasons for Mr Schmidt's involvement are not clear, though Google characterised it as "personal" travel.

Many observers expect Mr Richardson to seek the release of Mr Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour guide who was detained last year. He told CBS television last Friday that he had been contacted by Mr Bae's family and that he would raise the issue while in North Korea.

Pyongyang has used the detention of American citizens to secure high-profile visits from US 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, Mr Jared and Mr 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 US technology giant has not commented on.