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N. Korean reversal calms nuclear nerves for now

In a last-minute reversal, North Korea pulled Asia back from the brink of a possible nuclear arms race on Friday.

Today was the day North Korea had announced it would withdraw from a treaty signed by 153 nations to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. But on Friday, the North Koreans decided to remain a party to the treaty. For now.

If North Korea were to have nuclear weapons, South Korea and Japan might try to develop their own nuclear stockpiles as deterrents.

North Korea's neighbors regard it uneasily. On Friday, a Japanese defense official said North Korea had tested a new intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of hitting western Japan. Such a missile could be used to threaten Japan or South Korea if North Korea developed a nuclear warhead.

North Korea's development of the missile, a modified and upgraded version of the Russian Scud, is reportedly nearing completion.

North Korea would have become the first nation to withdraw in the 23-year history of the pact, which provides for nuclear inspections by foreign observers to ensure that nuclear weapons do not spread. Friday, North Korea decided to suspend its withdrawal from the nuclear pact, a double negative that indicates it could change its mind.

The North had announced its pullout March 12 after barring an inspection of a suspected reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon. The prohibition heightened concern that North Korea, despite its denials, was developing nuclear arms.

North Korea announced it would withdraw from the pact less than three weeks after CIA Director James Woolsey said there was a possibility it had made enough fissionable material for at least one nuclear weapon.

North Korea's conditions for staying in the nuclear accord have included cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, withdrawal of 36,000 U.S. troops from South Korea and a pledge by the United States not to use nuclear weapons in Korea.

The United States and North Korea issued a joint statement "against the threat and use of force, including nuclear weapons" and declared their commitment to a "nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."

Those pledges appeared to be aimed at allaying North Korea's fears that the United States has deployed, or might deploy, nuclear weapons in South Korea. They also reverse U.S. policy dating back to the 1950s, when Washington promised to use a so-called nuclear umbrella to protect its ally in the south. The border between the Koreas is the most heavily fortified in the world, with 1.5-million troops on either side.

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