By Hwang Doo-hyong
WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- The United States Monday welcomed North Korea's move to allow in international inspectors to monitor its nuclear facilities, but added Washington will heed actions, not words regarding the North's denuclearization.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, on a private mission to Pyongyang, earlier said that North Korea has agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to monitor its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, and negotiate the sale of 12,000 spent nuclear fuel rods.
At the State Department, spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters, "If North Korea wants to reengage with the IAEA, wants to reintroduce inspectors into its facilities, that certainly would be a positive step. But the key is following through and implementing that decision, and meeting its international obligations both under international agreements and also with the 2005 joint statement."
North Korea expelled IAEA monitors early last year in the wake of U.N. Security Council sanctions for a rocket launch seen as a long-range missile test. Months later, Pyongyang detonated its second nuclear device after one in 2006, saying the six-party talks are dead.
In a statement, Richardson's office also said North Korea agreed to set up a military commission consisting of representatives from the two Koreas and the U.S. and an inter-Korean military hotline to prevent conflicts in the disputed areas of the West Sea.
"We've seen a string of broken promises by North Korea going back many, many years," Crowley said. "We'll be guided by what North Korea does, not by what North Korea says it might do under certain circumstances. We're not against returning to six-party talks. But we don't want to have talks just for talks' sake. North Korea has a singular responsibility to take affirmative action that warrant a return to six-party talks."
The return of the U.N. monitors is one of preconditions Seoul and Washington had put forth for the resumption of the six-party talks on ending the North's nuclear weapons programs.
South Korea and the U.S. also want Pyongyang to apologize for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. China and Russia want the nuclear talks to reopen as soon as possible unconditionally.
China, a veto power on the Security Council, blocked efforts by the U.S. and its allies to denounce Pyongyang at a hastily convened meeting in New York Sunday.
South Korean officials have been cautious about the North's rapprochement efforts. Some experts say the proposals are just part of the North's traditional brinkmanship.
"North Korea has a better track record on implementation of threats than negotiated commitments, but it has also used bluffing tactics to heighten ambiguity and induce caution by its adversaries," said Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation. "The problem lies in knowing the difference between threat and bluff."
Crowley, meanwhile, urged North Korea to refrain from responding to live-fire drills by South Korea on the disputed border in the Yellow Sea earlier in the day.
"There was no basis for any other response by North Korea," the spokesman said. "This was an internal matter for South Korea. Its military has a right to exercise within its own borders. This exercise was not a threat to North Korea."
Crowley's remarks came amid concerns that North Korea might break its promise not to retaliate for the artillery exercise in waters off Yeonpyeong Island. North Korea shelled the island last month, killing four people, the first attack on South Korean soil to target civilians since the 1950-53 Korean War.
Pyongyang had threatened to retaliate if South Korea proceeded with the planned live-fire exercise near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto borderline in the Yellow Sea. The North for years has been challenging the border line, drawn unilaterally by the United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Richardson said he was pleased North Korea did not retaliate.
"I am very encouraged by the news that North Korea will not react militarily to South Korea's drills," he said. "During my meetings in Pyongyang, I repeatedly pressed North Korea not to retaliate. The result is that South Korea was able to flex its muscles, and North Korea reacted in a statesmanlike manner. I hope this will signal a new chapter and a round of dialogue to lessen tension on the Korean peninsula."
The North's restraint also comes amid media speculation that Pyongyang might be switching tactics, aiming for negotiation now after creating a series of crises. Earlier, North Korea revealed it has a uranium enrichment plant that could produce material for nuclear weapons.
"North Korea benefits from continued provocations to the extent that the incidents provide a pretext for even stronger domestic political control, reveal military and political weaknesses in South Korea, and divide the United States and China," Snyder said. "An effective policy response must address these vulnerabilities by strengthening South Korean defenses and closing the U.S. gap with China on how to deal with North Korea."
The scholar would not preclude chances of North Korea provoking further later.
"One possible target of a North Korean escalatory counter-response is a South Korean tower near the DMZ that has been authorized for the first time since 2004 to carry a Christmas display," he said. "Although both sides know that they cannot risk a war, the risk of miscalculation has been heightened as a result of recent North Korean provocations."
Crowley said the U.S. is ready to talk to North Koreans about restarting excavation for the remains of American soldiers in North Korea.
"We would hope that, as a humanitarian measure, we can continue cooperation with North Korea on return of remains," he said. "But again, that is separate from these other considerations, in our view."
North Koreans reportedly told Richardson it wants to resume the operation for the retrieval of the remains.
Richardson, once nominated by President Barack Obama as commerce secretary, successfully negotiated the release of two American citizens held in North Korea in the 1990s, and most recently toured North Korea in 2007 to resume operations to excavate the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War.
Some 36,000 U.S. troops were killed during the war, and about 8,100 remain missing. A large number of those missing are believed to be buried in North Korea, but U.S. operations in the communist North have been suspended since 2005 because of escalating tension over the North's nuclear ambitions. At the end of the Korean War, North Korea returned the remains of about 3,000 Americans.
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