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North Korea backs away from threat to attack South
YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea (AP) — North Korea backed off threats to retaliate against South Korea for military drills Monday and reportedly offered concessions on its nuclear program — signs it was looking to lower the temperature on the Korean Peninsula after weeks of soaring tensions.
But Pyongyang has feinted toward conciliation before and failed to follow through.
The North’s gestures came after South Korea launched fighter jets, evacuated hundreds of residents near its tense land border with the North and sent residents of islands near disputed waters into underground bunkers in case Pyongyang followed through on its vow to attack over the drills.
“It appears that deterrence has been restored,” said Daniel Pinkston, Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank. “The North Koreans only understand force or show of force.”
North Korea has previously been accused of using a mix of aggression and conciliatory gestures to force international negotiations that usually net it much-needed aid. Real progress on efforts to rid the North of its nuclear weapons programs has been rare.
On Nov. 23, the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island, a tiny enclave of fishing communities and military bases about seven miles from North Korean shores in response to an earlier round of South Korean live-fire maneuvers. The North’s artillery barrage killed two marines and two construction workers in its first attack targeting civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War. That clash sent tensions soaring between the two countries — which are still technically at war.
They’ve remained in a tense standoff since then’, and an emergency meeting of U.N. diplomats in New York on Sunday failed to find any solution to the crisis.
But Monday brought some of the first positive signs in weeks, as a high-profile American governor announced what he said were two nuclear concessions from the North.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a frequent unofficial envoy to North Korea and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said that during his visit the North agreed to let U.N. atomic inspectors visit its main nuclear complex to make sure it’s not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, according to a statement from his office.
The North expelled U.N. inspectors last year, and last month showed a visiting American scientist a new, highly advanced uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second way to make atomic bombs, in addition to its plutonium program. Mr. Richardson also said that Pyongyang was willing to sell fresh fuel rods, potentially to South Korea.
“We had positive results,” Mr. Richardson told Associated Press Television News at the Pyongyang airport Monday night.
He had been set to brief reporters in Beijing, but his flight was canceled.
“This is the way countries are supposed to act,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “The South Korean exercise was defensive in nature. The North Koreans were notified in advance. There was no basis for a belligerent response.”
Analyst Baek Seung-joo cautioned that the North’s reported concessions are only a tactic aimed at easing international pressure. Baek, of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said the comments would be significant if the North made them officially, rather than through Richardson.
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