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US, South Korea skeptical of North Korea's nuclear offer

US envoy Bill Richardson said its offer to allow nuclear inspections was a 'step in the right direction.' But the US and the South note a 'string of broken promises.'

By Staff writer / December 21, 2010

Pro-peace and anti-war activists perform during a flash mob asking for a stop to the tension on the Korean peninsula, in central Seoul on Dec. 21.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters

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Beijing

North Korea’s decision not to retaliate against South Korean military exercises Monday, and its declared readiness to allow inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities again, signal that the isolated and secretive nation is taking a new, less violent tack in dealing with the rest of the world.

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But they offer scant hope that Pyongyang is prepared to relinquish its nuclear weapons program as the rest of the world is demanding.

That is the conclusion reached by American, Chinese, and South Korean analysts who say they expect little of substance to emerge from North Korea’s offer to let United Nations inspectors check that it is not producing enriched uranium for a bomb, and to sell nuclear fuel rods that could also be used to make a plutonium bomb.

Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and unofficial US envoy to Pyongyang who extracted the pledges, said Tuesday after a four-day visit there that North Korea had taken “a step in the right direction.”

He urged “a new effort at re-engagement” with Pyongyang, which last year walked out of six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program in return for economic aid.

Washington was skeptical. “We’ve seen a string of broken promises by North Korea going back many, many years,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley. “We’ll be guided by what North Korea does, not what it says it might do under certain circumstances.”

Beijing, which has been urging a resumption of six-nation talks, was studiedly neutral. North Korea “must allow IAEA inspectors in” under the terms of a 2005 agreement that Pyongyang signed, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. North Korea expelled inspectors for the second time last year.

Independent analysts are even more dubious. “North Korea has made a strategic decision to possess nuclear weapons,” argues Cai Jian, a Korea expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. “They just want to buy time to enhance their nuclear power and put more cards in their hand.”

Pyongyang’s offer to sell 12,000 fresh fuel rods, enough to build eight to 10 nuclear bombs, recalls a similar proposal two years ago, says Kim Tae-woo, deputy head of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank in Seoul.

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