BEIJING — South Korea’s government remained on emergency alert Monday night for possible retaliation after staging more than an hour of live artillery exercises on the island that North Korea shelled last month.
The artillery fire took place on Yeonpyeong Island, some seven miles off North Korea’s coastline, and lasted about 90 minutes, adding to tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which are widely seen as being at their worst in decades.
North Korea released an official statement Monday evening that said it wouldn't respond, but Pyongyang’s history of erratic behavior made it impossible to evaluate how long that position would last. As recently as Saturday, North Korea had threatened “decisive and merciless punishment" should the South hold the drills.
The brinksmanship came amid reports that North Korea is willing to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors to return and has offered to sell some 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to the South.
The offer was reported by CNN, which had journalists traveling with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on a State Department-sanctioned trip to Pyongyang. It received a cool reception in Seoul, which decided to send the artillery shells crashing into the contested waters of the Yellow Sea. Despite Richardson’s apparent success, it remained unclear Monday how the crisis will be defused.
China, Pyongyang’s main ally, has refused so far to pressure North Korea publicly to curtail its behavior.
Last-minute negotiations at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council fell apart Sunday when Beijing blocked efforts to admonish Pyongyang for its Nov. 23 Yeonpyeong shelling, which killed two civilians and two South Korean marines.
The U.S. and its two main partners in the region, South Korea and Japan, have banded together more closely in the face of North Korea’s actions along with worries about the rising power of Beijing.
North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island and the torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March, which killed 46, have significantly dampened any willingness in Seoul for diplomacy.
Many observers in South Korea think that behind-the-scenes developments in North Korea are fueling the incidents this year.
North Korea is thought to want the international community to return to the negotiating table, in hopes that it will lead to aid for the impoverished country. At the same time, the regime of Kim Jong Il wants to burnish the military credentials of his inexperienced heir apparent, should Kim die soon.
Analysts and officials in Seoul reacted warily Monday to North Korea's talk of nuclear inspections, which they said appeared to be an attempt to get the United States, South Korea and Japan to rejoin negotiations known as the six-party talks along with China and Russia.
South Korea now sees the past six-party talks as providing cover for North Korea to continue developing its nuclear weapons programs. Last month, North Korea unveiled a sophisticated uranium-enrichment facility, adding to the South’s suspicions.
“Even if (North Korea) were to accept the IAEA inspectors, we will have to make an overall assessment based on how much access is given to the inspectors and what the North's intentions were,” a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kim Young-sun, said Monday, according to the Yonhap news agency. He was referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. body that inspects nuclear facilities.
Without knowing whether North Korea is serious about allowing unfettered inspections, the IAEA conversation “may be quite meaningless,” Lee Dong-bok, a Seoul analyst and former South Korean intelligence official, told McClatchy in a phone interview.
Should inspectors be allowed into North Korea and taken to nuclear sites, the U.S., South Korea and Japan probably would still want to pore over the resulting reports before committing to six-party meetings, said Hideshi Takesada, the executive director for research and international affairs at a Japanese Defense Ministry institute.
For now, the artillery display on Monday underscored the South’s resolve not to tolerate more aggression from Pyongyang, said Lee, the analyst.
“By undertaking these exercises this afternoon we have told the North Koreans it’s not going to be like it has,” Lee said. “They are going to pay dearly if they decide to come back with another round of military provocations.”
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