N. Korea retreats on threat against South
Reportedly offers nuclear concession
YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — North Korea backed off threats to retaliate against South Korea for military drills yesterday 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, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank who is based in Seoul. “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 7 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. The episode sent tensions soaring between the two countries — which are still technically at war.
They have remained in a tense standoff since then, and an emergency meeting of UN diplomats in New York on Sunday failed to find any solution to the crisis.
But yesterday 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.
Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a frequent unofficial envoy to North Korea and former US ambassador to the UN, said that during his visit the North agreed to let UN atomic inspectors visit its main nuclear complex to make sure it is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, according to a statement from his office.
The North expelled UN 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.
Richardson also said that Pyongyang was willing to sell fresh fuel rods, potentially to South Korea.
Richardson said that during his talks in Pyongyang he repeatedly pressed North Korea not to retaliate. “The result is that South Korea was able to flex its muscles, and North Korea reacted in a statesmanlike manner,’’ he said.
“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.
The North was only sounding out US and South Korean intentions by talking to Richardson, Baek said, and if the situation doesn’t turn in the North’s favor, it will back away.
Pyongyang is believed to be seeking one-on-one talks with Washington before returning to stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations hosted by China.
The United States, however, has indicated that a resumption of those talks, without meaningful movement on past nuclear commitments from the North, could be seen as tantamount to rewarding North Korea for behaving badly.
China has urged a resumption of the talks, and diplomats said Beijing prevented Sunday’s UN Security Council meeting from issuing a statement condemning the North’s shelling — a rebuke the United States and others had wanted.
Yesterday, China’s deputy UN ambassador, Wang Min, urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint,’’ avoid increasing tensions and solve differences through peaceful dialogue and engagement.
“China will continue to make every effort towards this end,’’ he said. “Calm rather than tensions, dialogue rather than confrontation, peace than warfare — this is the strong aspiration and voice of the peoples from both sides of the peninsula and the international community.’’
Diplomats at the UN blamed China for refusing to condemn North Korea for two deadly attacks this year that helped send relations to their lowest point in decades.
Wang called the Security Council meeting “positive and of great importance’’ without any mention of its failure to agree on a statement.