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North Korea backs down over 'retaliation' threats

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

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.

“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.”

This is not the first time that the North has taken the international community down this road. The North has previously been accused of using a mix of aggression and conciliatory gestures to force international negotiations. Real progress, however, on efforts to rid the North of its nuclear weapons programmes has been rare.

But yesterday brought some of the first positive signs in weeks, as a high-profile US 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 is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.

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

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