Tuesday, December 21, 2010
North Withholds Fire After South Korean Drills - NYTimes.com
PYONGYANG, North Korea — An ominous showdown between North and South Korea was forestalled Monday after the North withheld military retaliation for South Korea’s live-fire artillery drills on an island that the North shelled last month after similar drills.
The North claims the island and its surrounding waters and had threatened “brutal consequences beyond imagination” if the drills went forward. But the North’s official news agency issued a statement Monday night saying it was “not worth reacting” to the exercise, and a statement from the North’s military said, “The world should properly know who is the true champion of peace and who is the real provocateur of a war.”
The apparent pullback created a palpable feeling of relief in South Korea, where many people had been bracing for a showdown.
Many had expected a repeat — if not worse — of the North’s hour-long barrage on Yeonpyeong Island, just eight miles from the North Korean coast, which left two South Korean soldiers and two South Korean civilians dead.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former ambassador to the United Nations who spent five days on an unofficial visit to North Korea to try to break through the North’s isolation, said the talks had yielded “important progress” on its nuclear program, including a resumption of visits by United Nations monitors.
“I believe the North Koreans responded positively because they had pushed themselves into the precipice and into the brink and they had to pull back,” Mr. Richardson said.
North Korea’s recent aggressive actions have left it more isolated than ever, he said, “and they need food and fuel and the easing of sanctions.”
“Maybe we had a little impact,” he said of the North’s restraint over the drills.
After repeated delays attributed to bad weather, the drills began Monday afternoon.
The 94 minutes of operations included F-15K fighter-bombers overhead and shelling into waters claimed by both Koreas. About 20 American military personnel took various support and observer roles. The United States has been South Korea’s protector since the Korean War, with 28,500 military personnel stationed in the country.
South Korea insisted that the drills were routine and that it had the sovereign right to conduct such exercises, even at a time of heightened tensions.
The North has made a series of provocative moves this year: sinking a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors; shelling the island last month; and revealing a new and highly sophisticated nuclear facility. North Korean officials have denied any role in the sinking of the warship.
Some North Korea watchers in Seoul said that the sudden softening in tone by the North was most likely part of a broader strategy to nudge both South Korea and the United States to the negotiating table. North Korea, they said, is desperate to obtain food aid from the South and possibly even security guarantees from Washington as the North’s ailing dictator, Kim Jong-il, tries to engineer the succession of his young and untested third son, Kim Jong-un.
“North Korea was thinking very strategically when it backed down from its confrontational stance,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “I think they are trying to create the mood for dialogue.”
Tony Namkung, a senior advisor to Mr. Richardson and an Asia specialist who accompanied the governor to Pyongyang, said Tuesday: "This does not add up to a breakthrough or even a turning point. It is a small opening, a reprieve from the current tensions and an opportunity."
Mr. Richardson said the United States, South Korea and other nations involved in earlier, failed negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program should exploit "this potentially new, constructive attitude" in Pyongyang.
The South was unwilling to back down over the drills, with President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, under pressure from his right-wing base for failing to respond more robustly both to last month’s attack and the sinking of the warship. The new South Korean defense minister, a former four-star general, has vowed to strike back hard at North Korea — including airstrikes — should it attack again.
Last month’s attack was particularly shocking in the South because it appeared to target the island’s small fishing community of about 1,350 civilians, as well as its military garrison. This led to uncharacteristic calls for revenge against the North.
Diplomatic efforts to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and perhaps halt the drills, faltered on Sunday. The United Nations Security Council held a special session, but in six hours of talks failed to agree on a measure calling for moderation and restraint by the two Koreas. Seoul also rejected calls by China and Russia to cancel the exercise.
At the Security Council meeting in New York, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, defended Seoul, saying it was “important to recognize that there is nothing unusual about these planned drills.”
“They are exclusively defensive in nature, and they have been regularly conducted for years,” she said.
There had been some concern over the weekend that the South Korean Coast Guard’s detention of three crewmen from a Chinese ship fishing illegally in South Korean waters 170 miles south of Seoul might aggravate relations with China, North Korea’s most important ally, which has sought to defuse the North-South crisis. But both China and South Korea played down the dispute.
On Monday, Mr. Richardson detailed the concessions he said the North had made related to its nuclear program, a main source of tension on the peninsula. After meetings with high-ranking military officials, the North Korean vice president and members of the Foreign Ministry, he said, the North agreed to allow United Nations nuclear monitors back into the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the site of its new facility, to ensure that it is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. The monitors were expelled last year.
North Korean officials also told Mr. Richardson that their government was willing to sell 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to South Korea, removing bomb-making material from the North, he said. “I would describe this as important progress,” he said of the concessions.
If allowed access to the Yongbyon complex, monitors could verify how many of the 2,000 centrifuges North Korea says it has installed in the new facility are actually operating. They could measure production and declare whether the country is making reactor-grade or bomb-grade fuel at the complex.
But without access beyond Yongbyon, the monitors would not be able to observe any plants that North Korea may be running elsewhere. American and European experts have all said in recent days that they believe that the North must have other production and research facilities; without them, it would have been virtually impossible to assemble so many centrifuges, which enrich uranium, so quickly.
Sharon LaFraniere reported from Pyongyang, and Martin Fackler from Seoul, South Korea. Mark McDonald contributed reporting from Seoul and David E. Sanger contributed from Boston.