By John Pomfret and Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 20, 2010; 10:43 PM
North Korea has told a visiting American politician that it would allow international inspectors to visit a newly unveiled uranium-enrichment facility and announced Monday that it would not "retaliate" against South Korea for conducting military exercises - gestures that seemed intended to calm tensions on the Korean Peninsula, at least for the time being.
Ending a five-day visit to Pyongyang, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) praised North Korea for reacting "in a statesmanlike manner" to the South's live-fire exercises and expressed hope that the North's proposals would "signal a new chapter and a round of dialogue to lessen tension on the Korean Peninsula."
At the State Department, the reaction was more guarded.
"If North Korea wants to reengage with the [International Atomic Energy Agency], wants to reintroduce inspectors into its facilities, that certainly would be a positive step," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told a news briefing. "We'll be guided by what North Korea does, not by what North Korea says it might do under certain circumstances." North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors in April 2009 before it conducted a second test of a nuclear device.
South Korea's military conducted a 94-minute artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island, which was subjected to deadly shelling by the North on Nov. 23. But it soon became clear that North Korea was not going to respond with "brutal consequences beyond imagination" as it had earlier threatened.
On Monday evening, North Korea's state-run news agency said the South Korean drills were "not worth" a military response.
"The revolutionary armed forces of the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] did not feel any need to retaliate against every despicable military provocation," the agency said, quoting a communique from the North's Korean People's Army Supreme Command that called the drills a "childish play with fire."
Richardson, upon leaving Pyongyang after a visit he made as a private citizen but with the knowledge of the U.S. government, issued a statement saying North Korean officials had agreed to allow the IAEA to return to the Yongbyon nuclear facility, where last month it revealed a secret uranium-enrichment plant to a team of U.S. scientists and weapons experts. The enrichment facility, which would be an important link in building a nuclear bomb based on highly enriched uranium, sparked speculation that North Korea may have other such plants.
North Korea also reiterated to Richardson a proposal to sell fuel rods to a third party, such as South Korea. Radioactive material collected from fuel rods can be used to make plutonium-based nuclear weapons.
"It is too early to make any response to an informal suggestion by Richardson," said Song Min-soon, former South Korean foreign minister and a current member of the National Assembly's foreign affairs committee. "We don't have the details, and North Korea always includes conditions on deals. Unless there is an official and concrete suggestion by North Korea, it is difficult to make any responses."
While experts said they did not believe the proposals would harken a return to negotiations about North Korea's nuclear program, some predicted calm would return to the Korean Peninsula for about a month - enough time to allow China's president, Hu Jintao, to return home from a trip to Washington expected to take place in the latter half of January. Dai Bingguo, a senior Chinese diplomat, traveled to North Korea on Dec. 9, and China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that China and North Korea had reached "consensus" on the situation on the peninsula - which many analysts interpreted to mean a North Korean agreement not to provoke South Korea in the short term.
"The Chinese clearly had to have something to do with it," said Evan Feigenbaum, a George W. Bush administration State Department official now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Dai goes there and suddenly North Korea says, 'We don't need to respond.' "
The United States has pressed China to rein in North Korea for months, and recently a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, accused China, which has tightened its ties with Pyongyang, of "enabling" North Korea's provocations. North Korean forces are suspected of launching a deadly attack on a South Korean warship on March 26 that left 46 South Korean sailors dead. On Nov. 23 North Korean forces shelled Yeonpyeong, killing four people, in one of the most serious attacks on South Korean soil since the Korean War.
A second factor that adds to the danger on the peninsula is the predicament faced by South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak. He has looked weak in the face of the North's moves. His reaction to the sinking of the warship in March was deemed ineffectual, and his forces did little, if any, damage to the North during their November artillery duel. Following the firefight, Lee accepted the resignation of his defense minister and has vowed a fierce response to future North Korean strikes.
That has led to worries among his U.S. interlocutors and officials from other friendly countries that Lee might lash out if provoked again.
On Monday, South Korean troops used K-9 self-propelled howitzers and Vulcan guns, among other weapons, during the drill. According to local media accounts, all shots were fired in a southwest direction, while a fleet of fighter jets conducted surveillance on the North Korean coast to deter a North Korean counterstrike. About 20 members of the U.S. military participated in Monday's drills. In all, more than 28,000 U.S. forces are based in South Korea.
Harlan reported from Seoul. Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo, also in Seoul, contributed to this report.