SEOUL (Reuters) - A North Korean offer to allow U.N. inspectors back to its nuclear site and to sell fuel rods could indicate that Pyongyang, after months of military grandstanding, is bending to international pressure.
On the other hand, the offer could amount to little more than an empty gesture -- giving up an aging plutonium-based programme, while retaining an alternative, uranium-based path to nuclear weapons, and appearing conciliatory.
The latest offer was extended to U.S. troublshooter Bill Richardson during a visit to Pyongyang, according to CNN which has a team traveling with the New Mexico governor.
It came as South went ahead with live firing drills near the Koreas' disputed maritime border. The North had warned the exercise could bring a more serious response than its late November shelling of a South Korean island.
But instead of responding to the South Korean drill with more fire, the North made the offers, staking a claim to the moral high ground as it presses for the resumption of international talks, with a view to the aid they could unlock.
Details of the latest offers were not clear but permission for inspections, which the North had rejected last year as it called six-party nuclear disarmament process dead, and to transfer thousands of nuclear fuel rods, might indicate it was ready to scrap its plutonium programme.
North Korea has spent years and scarce resources building the plutonium programme, centered at the Yongbyon complex, which has yielded enough fissile material to build up to eight nuclear bombs.
But the offer would not, however, address fresh international concern about the North's newly revealed uranium enrichment programme, which has opened a second route to making atomic bombs.
The offer could indicate that it has made enough advances in building uranium enrichment facilities, and that it felt confident in giving up the aging plutonium programme while keeping a powerful negotiating card in hand.
Yongbyon was set up with Soviet help more than 40 years ago. A cooling tower, which is an essential component of operating the nuclear reactor that can process fuel rods that can be used to extract material for weapons, has not been restored after the North destroyed it in 2008.
Neither of the North's offers is new.
It had previously lived with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors at Yongbyon before expelling them twice, once in 2002 and again in 2009, as it threatened to walk away from international talks aimed at ending its nuclear programme.
In other words, the North is not new to intrusive inspections involving both personnel and monitoring equipment, while it engaged in talks to secure economic and energy aid.
The offer to sell fuel rods is also not new. It was suggested to a group of U.S. experts who visited the North last month, who were also given a tour of the uranium enrichment site.
A U.S. expert who toured the uranium facility in Yongbyon was reported to have been stunned at how modern it appeared, compared with obsolete conditions of the rest of the site.
South Korean and U.S. officials have said they suspect the North is operating uranium enrichment facilities at other locations.
The offers come as the North is seeking to resume the stalled six-party talks, but the South and the United States have insisted they will only return to the negotiating table when the North makes "sincere" gestures toward denuclearization.
North Korea has been under intense international pressure after the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on it last year for conducting a nuclear test. China, the North's major ally, joined in adopting the resolution, which piled added political pressure on the impoverished North.
The sanctions squeezed the North's already dry coffers as much of its previously lucrative arms business was cut off and customs officials around the world scrutinized shipments headed for Pyongyang to stop luxury goods intended for its leaders.
So the latest offer could be a way to ease some of the diplomatic and economic pressure and appease China while not giving away very much when it comes to the weapons programme.
Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Robert Birsel