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N Korea offers nuclear concessions

North Korea has backed away from threats to retaliate against South Korea for carrying out military exercises and offered concessions on its nuclear programme.

There was hope 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 it up.

The North's gestures came after South Korea launched fighter jets, evacuated hundreds of residents near its 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.

Daniel Pinkston, Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, said: "It appears that deterrence has been restored. The North Koreans only understand force or show of force."

This is not the first time that the North has taken the international community down this road, and it has previously been accused of using a mix of aggression and conciliatory gestures to force international negotiations that usually net it much-needed aid.

The latest drills came nearly a month after 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 Korean artillery barrage killed two marines and two construction workers in its first attack targeting civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War, and sent tensions soaring between the two countries - which are still technically at war.

They have remained in a tense stand-off since the November 23 attack, and an emergency meeting of UN diplomats in New York on Sunday failed to find any solution to the crisis.

But 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 is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.

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

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