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(News Focus) N. Korea's nuclear concession to have minor influence on tension with S. Korea
By Sam Kim
SEOUL, Dec. 21 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's offer to open up to international nuclear monitors and negotiate away its fresh fuel rods marks a meaningful juncture in the nuclear standoff, but will not significantly lower cross-border tension with South Korea, analysts said Tuesday.

   The offer was made while New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson of the United States was visiting North Korea earlier this week on a private mission to defuse tension that hiked on the Korean Peninsula after the North bombarded a populated South Korean island on Nov. 23.

   North Korean officials told Richardson that they would allow U.N. nuclear inspectors back into their communist country and sell 12,000 unused fuel rods to another country, possibly South Korea.

U.S. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson talks to reporters in Beijing Dec. 21 after his arrival from North Korea. (AP-Yonhap)

South Korean analysts said the proposal is nothing new, but signals that the North is trying to steer in a direction that could put stalled six-party denuclearization talks back on track.

   "It is a step forward, but the question is, will North Korea do as it promised?" Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Korea University, said, expressing worries over the mistrust that has run deep between Pyongyang and Washington.

   A senior South Korean official, speaking Tuesday to reporters on condition of anonymity, dismissed the offer as an "old trick," but in Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a briefing that his government sees it as a "positive step," while warning Pyongyang to follow through.

   North Korea kicked out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors early last year after the U.N. Security Council condemned it for a rocket launch seen as a long-range missile test.

   Months later, the North conducted its second nuclear test, declaring as "dead" the six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks which also included the U.S, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

   North Korea offered to sell its unused fuel rods -- which could be reprocessed to create nuclear bombs after being used for energy -- in early 2009, but a deal fell through amid a dispute over ways to verify past nuclear activities in the North.

   "There are other conditions for the six-party talks to resume," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said, referring to a set of actions the U.S. pressed the North to carry out.

   The actions, outlined by Crowley earlier this month, included a halt in provocative behavior, steps to return to the path of denuclearization agreed on in 2005 and a measure to reduce tension that heightened after the Nov. 23 bombardment of Yeonpyeong.

   The shelling, which the North claims was in self-defense after South Korea first fired toward it, killed two marines and two civilians on Yeonpyeong, just south of the disputed border.

   Yoo Ho-yeol said the North's ongoing hereditary power succession is tied to the odds of restoring stability on the peninsula because North Korea appears to be using the tension to unite the regime behind the heir apparent, Kim Jong-un.

   "North Korea will seek aid by taking gestures suggesting it is willing to denuclearize, but it will also continue to play around with the tension," Yoo said. "Still, it will try to temper the tension in a way the inter-Korean animosity can facilitate the succession and not fully threaten the prospect for nuclear talks."

   Kim, 27 or 28, was unveiled to the world as a four-star general earlier this year. His father Kim Jong-il, 68, himself inherited the regime through a hereditary power transfer from Kim Il-sung, the country's founder who died in 1994.

   The latest succession is an unprecedented political experiment because no modern country has ever completed a back-to-back father-to-son power handovers. On Monday, South Korea conducted a live-fire drill off its bombarded island of Yeonpyeong despite North Korea's threats to retaliate, but Pyongyang did not react, saying the exercise "does not even deserve a passing notice."