Image: South Koreans watch a live TV breaking news about South Korea's live fire artillery at Seoul train station in Seoul
Park Ji-Hwan  /  AFP - Getty Images
South Koreans watch breaking news at Seoul station on the South Korean army's live-fire drill that started near the inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea on Monday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 12/20/2010 2:23:34 PM ET 2010-12-20T19:23:34

North Korea said it would not react to "reckless" military drills by the South on Monday, despite an earlier threat to retaliate that further heightened tensions between the two neighbors.

Air raid bunkers on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong shook during the live-fire artillery exercise, which went on for just over 90 minutes, but the North Korean guns that had shelled the island after a similar drill last month stayed silent.

"The revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK did not feel any need to retaliate against every despicable military provocation," the official KCNA news agency said, quoting a communique from the North's Korean People's Army Supreme Command that dismissed the drills as a "childish play with fire."

"We felt it was not worth reacting one-by-one to military provocations," the communique said.

The South had evacuated hundreds of residents near its tense land border and sent residents of islands near disputed waters into underground bunkers amid soaring fears of war.

The live-fire exercises came nearly a month after the North responded to earlier maneuvers by shelling Yeonpyeong island, killing two marines and two civilians in its first attack targeting civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War.

It had said it would respond even more harshly to any new drills from the Yellow Sea island.

But Monday brought some of the first positive signs in weeks, as a high-profile American governor announced what he said were two nuclear concessions from the North.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a frequent unofficial envoy to North Korea and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said that during his visit the North agreed to let U.N. atomic inspectors visit its main nuclear complex to make sure it's not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, according to a statement from his office.

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.

"We had positive results," Richardson told Associated Press Television News at the Pyongyang airport Monday night.

"If North Korea wants to re-engage with the IAEA, wants to reintroduce inspectors into its facilities, that certainly would be a positive step," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told a news briefing in Washington on Monday.

"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."

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'Immediately and sternly'
South Korea's military said ahead of Monday's planned drills that it would "immediately and sternly" deal with any provocation by the North.

Fighter jets flew over South Korean airspace on a mission to deter North Korean attacks, a Defense Ministry official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

Residents, local officials and journalists on Yeonpyeong and four other islands were ordered to evacuate to underground shelters because of possible attacks by North Korea, Ongjin County government spokesman Won Ji-young said.

Hundreds of South Koreans living near the tense land border with North Korea were either evacuated to bomb shelters or taken to areas farther south ahead of the drills, local officials said.

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On Yeonpyeong, residents filed into an underground shelter after authorities announced the drill and huddled on the floor as a South Korean soldier showed them how to use a gas mask, according to footage shot by Associated Press Television News.

"I feel the same as last Nov. 23, when North Korea fired artillery at us," said Oh Gui-nam, a 70-year-old island resident.

"My emotions are all tangled up."

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"I can't exactly tell how many (shells) have been fired, some are distant and some are noisy," said Reuters journalist Kim Do-gyun, also from an air-raid shelter on the island during the drill. "The bunker is shaking and people here are worried."

The Defense Ministry said the artillery drills involved several types of weapons, including K-9 self-propelled guns, ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters, according to his office.

Ahead of the drills, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Monday asked all South Koreans to be more united and vigilant about North Korea.

"The highest-level of national security comes from unity among the people," Lee said in a previously scheduled meeting with home affairs officials, according to Lee's office. North Korea provokes South Korea when "our public opinion is divided," Lee said.

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Breakthrough?
Meanwhile, Richardson, New Mexico's governor, who visiting Pyongyang to try to ease tensions, won agreement from North Korea to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors to return, according to CNN which has a team traveling with him.

Pyongyang "agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency personnel to return to a nuclear facility in the country and agreed to negotiate the sale of 12,000 ... fuel rods and ship them to an outside country, presumably to South Korea", CNN said, quoting correspondent Wolf Blitzer in Pyongyang.

"The North has also agreed to consider Richardson's proposal for a military commission between the United States, North Korea and South Korea as well as a separate hotline for the Koreas' militaries."

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it could not confirm the agreement.

"We do not have the specific details yet, so it is too early to make an official evaluation," a spokesman said.

Richardson was visiting in an unofficial capacity, the traditional means of communication between the two sides, but it was unclear whether the reported agreement would ease tensions, particularly given Pyongyang's poor record of honoring deals.

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North Korea expelled inspectors in April 2009 after ripping up a previous disarmament-for-aid agreement.

North Korea expert Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University said the proposed sale of fuel rods would indicate Pyongyang was offering to shut down its plutonium-based nuclear program, which bringing back inspectors would also indicate.

"It means that they are prepared to give up, at least in part, the plutonium program, which has been the source of the fuel rods they came up with," he said. "It would be considerable progress, if true."

However, North Korea last month unveiled major technical progress in uranium enrichment, suggesting another reason it could be willing to end the plutonium program.

No agreement at U.N.
The U.N. Security Council failed Sunday to agree on a statement to address rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States and other council members demanded that the council condemn North Korea for two deadly attacks this year that have helped send relations to their lowest point in decades. But diplomats said China strongly objected.

After eight hours of closed-door consultations Sunday, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who called the emergency council meeting, told reporters "we were not successful in bridging all the bridges."

Although some countries still need to consult capitals, Rice said "the gaps that remain are unlikely to be bridged."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: South Korea conducts military drills

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