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NKorea Offers Softened Criticism to US-SKorean Military Drill

North Korea has responded with softer than usual language to an annual U.S.-South Korea war exercise that began this week.

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill that began Monday is regularly slammed by Pyongyang officials, who consider it a preparation for invasion.

The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea on Tuesday mentioned the exercise, but did not specifically criticize it.

The statement instead blasted South Korean President Park Geun-hye for saying last week Seoul should remain on guard and "not forget about war," despite a recent reduction in tensions.

Though it did not mention her by name, the statement said Ms. Park's comments "chill the atmosphere for dialogue." It warned of "uncontrollably catastrophic consequences" if the South continues to "pursue confrontation."

South Korea called the North's statement "regrettable," and said Pyongyang should stop "slamming and slandering" the Seoul government.

But Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea scholar at Leeds University, says the statement was relatively restrained, by North Korean standards.

"Parsed carefully, this is not the toughest statement. Not like the screaming rage we saw in the spring. There was no mention of Park by name and no mention of the U.S., very interestingly."

Foster-Carter says this suggests Pyongyang is ready, at least for now, to continue down a path of dialogue that has raised hopes of a period of warmer Korean relations.

Last week, North and South Korea agreed to work toward reopening a joint factory park in Kaesong. On Sunday, the two sides agreed to participate in talks on reuniting families separated during the Korean War.

The increased diplomacy comes after months of tensions following the North's nuclear test and satellite launch, which received tough responses and expanded sanctions from the United Nations.

At its most intense point, North Korea was issuing regular threats of nuclear war against Washington and Seoul, and even appeared to move medium-range missiles to its coast.

But Foster-Carter says the North may now have decided to change course after realizing that its aggressive approach did not yield the results it wanted.

"All that shouting didn't work. It just annoyed everybody, including friends. China was as cross as anybody, and even tightened sanctions just a bit. And now they're trying a different way."

A major part of North Korea's angry reaction earlier this year had to do with a separate set of annual U.S.-South Korean military drills, which saw the U.S. send B-2 and B-52 bombers over South Korea.

The latest drill is much smaller and conducted on computers. Washington and Seoul say the exercise, which involves more than 80,000 troops, is intended to simulate a response to a North Korean attack.

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