Yeonpyeong Island: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak gathered his national security leaders for strategic talks Tuesday as troops braced for possible North Korean retaliation a day after conducting artillery drills on an island the North bombed last month.
North Korea has so far backed off threats to strike the South again for conducting live-fire military drills on Yeonpyeong Island. Similar drills last month triggered a North Korean artillery attack that killed four South Koreans, including two civilians.
Still, South Korea`s military said it was prepared for any unexpected North Korean provocation.
"We will mobilize reconnaissance and surveillance assets of South Korea and the U.S. combined force and intensively monitor North Korea`s military activities," Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told lawmakers before leaving for the security meeting.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson praised North Korea`s "statesmanlike" restraint as he wrapped up a four-day trip to North Korea.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has served as an unofficial envoy to North Korea in the past, told Associated Press Television News in Pyongyang that his trip yielded "positive" results.
"It was a good visit — positive results in our discussions with North Korea," he said Tuesday morning before boarding a plane in Pyongyang.
Richardson said the North agreed to let U.N. atomic inspectors visit its main nuclear complex to make sure North Korea is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, according to a statement from his office.
The United States, however, indicated skepticism that North Korea would do anything more than talk.
"North Korea talks a great game. They always do," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington. "The real issue is what will they do. If they are agreeable to returning IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors to their country, they need to tell the IAEA that."
The North expelled U.N. inspectors last year, and last month showed a visiting American scientist a new, highly advanced uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second way to make atomic bombs, in addition to its plutonium program. Richardson also said that Pyongyang was willing to sell fresh fuel rods, potentially to South Korea.
"This is the way countries are supposed to act," Crowley told reporters. "The South Korean exercise was defensive in nature. The North Koreans were notified in advance. There was no basis for a belligerent response."
The North`s apparent conciliatory gestures came after South Korea launched fighter jets, evacuated hundreds of residents near its tense land border with the North and sent residents of islands near disputed waters into underground bunkers in case Pyongyang followed through on a vow to attack over the drills.
"We have to show North Korea that we are committed to respond to any kind of North Korean provocation," a senior South Korean government official said Tuesday.