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N Korea offers nuclear concessions

North Korea backed off threats to retaliate against South Korea for military drills and reportedly offered concessions on its nuclear programme - 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 programmes has been rare.

On November 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 manoeuvres. 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 have remained in a tense stand-off since then, and an emergency meeting of UN 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 Governor Bill Richardson, 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 was not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, according to a statement from his office.

"North Korea talks a great game. They always do. The real issue is what will they do. If they are agreeable to returning IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors to their country, they need to tell the IAEA that," US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said.

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 programme. Richardson also said that Pyongyang was willing to sell fresh fuel rods, potentially to South Korea.

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