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A DAY after staging provocative artillery drills on an island the North shelled last month, a South Korean destroyer yesterday prowled the sea and fighter jets screamed across the skies in preparation for possible North Korean attacks.

But Pyongyang has said it would not retaliate for the exercises off Yeonpyeong Island – reversing its earlier threats.

The Associated Press (AP) yesterday quoted a top South Korean government official as saying that the lack of response so far did not mean Pyongyang was backing down, noting that North Korea 'thrives on surprise attacks.

The comment came as China yesterday urged North Korea to follow through on its offer to allow UN nuclear monitors into the country as a way to alleviate international tensions during a standoff with the South.

China, North Korea's only major ally, has continually urged dialogue to resolve the crisis and has been reluctant to blame its neighbor for the shelling of a South Korean island last month, in which two Marines and two civilians were killed.

South Korea held further live-fire drills on the island on Monday, raising fears of all-out war, but the North did not retaliate. Instead, it offered to accept nuclear inspectors it has kicked out of the country before.

Pyongyang considers the waters around the island – a tiny enclave of fishing communities and military bases within sight of North Korean shores – its territory, and similar drills last month triggered an artillery barrage that killed four South Koreans, in the first attack targeting civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who made an unofficial visit to North Korea this week, praised Pyongyang's 'statesmanlike' restraint.

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has served as an unofficial envoy to North Korea in the past, said in Beijing yesterday that during the trip North Korean officials agreed to let UN atomic inspectors visit its main nuclear complex to make sure the facility is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.

That, Richardson said, could provide an opening for a resumption of negotiations aimed at dismantling the country's nuclear program.

North Korea pulled out of six-nation talks to provide Pyongyang with aid in exchange for disarmament in April 2009, but since has said it is willing to resume them.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that if North Korea is serious about accepting inspectors, it should let the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency know.

'North Korea talks a great game.
They always do,' Crowley said in Washington. 'The real issue is what will they do.'

In Seoul, meanwhile, top officials defended South Korea's decision to carry out more drills despite calls in some quarters for restraint amid fears of all-out war, and said the military was prepared for any future North Korean aggression.

Seoul's decision to push ahead with the routine drills in the face of North Korean threats of nuclear war and pressure from China and Russia indicates a new willingness by President Lee Myung-bak's government to use provocations of its own to counter North Korean aggression.

Seoul has already cut aid to the impoverished North and refused to participate in moneymaking joint tourism projects in North Korea.

Accused of acting too slowly and too weakly last month, Lee has threatened airstrikes if hit again and ordered more troops to front-line islands. On Tuesday, he gathered his national security advisers for strategic talks.

'When it provokes, we will firmly punish North Korea,' Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told lawmakers before leaving for the security meeting Tuesday.

Kim acknowledged facing pressure to cancel the drills. But leaders 'relieved our people's anxiety about security and created a sense of unity with firm and consistent military measures.'

Pyongyang denounced the 90-minute exercise as a 'reckless military provocation' but held its fire. However, the Korean People's Army showed no signs of pulling back.

SA-2 ground-to-air missile and ground-to-ship missiles have been deployed by North Korea in the west – where the Koreas dispute their sea border – and are poised to fire artillery, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified military official.

South Korean fighter jets continued patrolling the skies and an Aegis-equipped destroyer was ready to counter any possible provocation, the Defense Ministry said.

Troops also were on alert at the border where the South turned on the lights of a 100-foot-tall (30-meter-tall) steel Christmas tree that would be visible to North Koreans living near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas.

South Korea had stopped the longtime practice of lighting the huge Christmas tree – seen by secular North Korea as a propaganda move -years ago when it halted routine propaganda campaigns during a period of warming ties.

But on Tuesday the lights will go on again at the western mountain peak known as Aegibong for the first time in seven years, officials said.

On Yeonpyeong Island, a day after scrambling to take cover in underground bunkers, the streets were mostly empty apart from an occasional stray dog.

One islander drove a tractor among piles of trash; others lined up at a bank as troops patrolled the coast.

A fisherman said he wanted a government survey of the damage so islanders can get compensation. The November attacks left the island in ruins, with homes and businesses reduced to charred rubble.

'I also wish South Korea and North Korea can maintain conciliatory gestures,' said Park Cheon-hoon, 54.

The Korean peninsula remains in a state of war because the Koreas' three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

However, North Korea does not recognize the western sea border drawn by U.N. forces, and there have been several bloody naval skirmishes have occurred there in recent years.