YEONPYEONG, South Korea, (Reuters) – North Korea said it would not react to military drills staged by the South near their disputed border today and, easing tension further, CNN reported that Pyongyang had agreed to the return of nuclear inspectors.
The mercurial North had threatened to strike back if its neighbour went ahead with the live-fire exercise, but hours after the artillery barrage ended said it was “not worth” a military response.
“We felt it was not worth reacting one-by-one to military provocations,” the official KCNA news agency quoted the North’s Korean People’s Army Supreme Command as saying.
A diplomatic breakthrough looked possible after a report that North Korea told U.S. troubleshooter Bill Richardson it would accept the resumption of international inspections of its nuclear programme.
Today’s drill lasted just over 90 minutes, with near-constant artillery fire that shook air-raid bunkers on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.
“I can’t exactly tell how many have been fired, some are distant and some are noisy. The bunker is shaking and people here are worried, including myself,” said a Reuters witness on the island.
On Nov. 23, the last time Seoul conducted firing drills from Yeonpyeong close to the disputed maritime border off the west coast of the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang retaliated by shelling the island, killing four people, in the worst attack on South Korean territory since the Korean war ended in 1953.
The marines’ exercise came hours after a U.N. Security Council meeting on the Korean peninsula crisis ended in deadlock, with Russia and China resisting an explicit condemnation of the North for last month’s attack.
New Mexico Governor Richardson, visiting Pyongyang to try to ease tension, won agreement from North Korea to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors to return, according to CNN which has a team travelling with him.
Pyongyang “agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency personnel to return to a nuclear facility in the country and agreed to negotiate the sale of 12,000 … fuel rods and ship them to an outside country, presumably to South Korea”, CNN said, quoting correspondent Wolf Blitzer in Pyongyang.
“The North has also agreed to consider Richardson’s proposal for a military commission between the United States, North Korea and South Korea as well as a separate hotline for the Koreas’ militaries.”
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it could not confirm the agreement.
“We do not have the specific details yet, so it is too early to make an official evaluation,” a spokesman said.
Richardson was visiting in an unofficial capacity, the traditional means of communication between the two sides, but it was unclear whether the reported agreement would ease tension, particularly given Pyongyang’s poor record of honouring deals.
North Korea expelled inspectors in April 2009 after ripping up a previous disarmament-for-aid agreement.
“It means that they are prepared to give up, at least in part, the plutonium programme, which has been the source of the fuel rods they came up with,” said North Korea expert Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University. “It would be considerable progress, if true.”
However, North Korea last month unveiled major technical progress in uranium enrichment, suggesting another reason it could be willing to end the plutonium programme.
So while North Korea’s offers could indicate that, after months of military grandstanding, it is bending to international pressure, they may amount to little more than an empty conciliatory gesture.
Tension ahead of the military drills initially hit Korean markets when they opened on Monday, with the won falling nearly 2 percent to a four-week low against the dollar and stocks also down 1 percent in early trade.
But shares recouped most of their losses to close down just 0.3 percent, slightly outperforming the region as a whole, while the won ended local trade higher against the dollar. Some dealers cited the tension as a factor helping push gold up by 1 percent on international markets.
Yesterday’s announcement that Seoul would impose a levy on the foreign debt of banks from late 2011 also weighed on markets. The move was Seoul’s latest attempt to discourage too much speculative hot money flowing into South Korean assets, a reminder that local markets are bullish despite the tension.
“The fact that foreign investors are continuing to buy comes as a reassuring sign,” said Kwak Joon-bo, analyst at Samsung Securities. “Unless North Korea takes actions that are akin to its artillery shelling of the island, the market will be relatively calm.”
FEARS OF ESCALATION
Both sides have said they will use force to defend what they say is their territory off the west coast, raising international concern that the standoff could quickly spiral out of control.
Yonhap news agency quoted military officials as saying shells fired in the drill would land more than 10 km (6 miles) from the maritime border. But Pyongyang disputes the border and said last week it would be a suicidal provocation for Seoul to hold the exercise.
“The South Korean puppet warmongers going in league with outside forces are getting ever more frantic in their moves for a war of aggression… pushing the situation to the brink of a war,” the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said earlier today.
Wang Min, China’s representative at the Security Council meeting, warned that “the situation on the Korean peninsula is perilous” and defended China’s approach to the crisis.
Russia had called yesterday’s emergency Security Council meeting to try to prevent an escalation, but major powers failed to agree on a draft statement because of differences over whether to lay the blame on Pyongyang.
“The gaps that remain are unlikely to be bridged,” said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Other council diplomats, however, said it was possible the council could return to the issue as early as today.
Western diplomats said China and Russia were pushing for an ambiguous statement that would not have blamed North Korea for the crisis, but would have called on both sides to exercise restraint. Rice said the “vast majority” of council members did not want an ambiguous statement.