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How to read N. Korea?

SEOUL, South Korea &

North Korea showed signs Friday it could be backing away from its nuclear showdown with the world, even as it staged a show of domestic support in Pyongyang, where tens of thousands gathered to laud the country's first atomic test.

Coming under united international pressure, Kim Jong Il reportedly apologized for the Oct. 9 nuclear detonation and said he wouldn't test any more bombs.

That doesn't mean Kim can afford to show any weakness to a home crowd who live in an officially enforced siege mentality and are long accustomed to blaming their desperate living conditions on outside forces &

mainly the United States.

"No matter how the U.S. imperialists try to stifle and isolate our republic ... victory will be on the side of justice," Choe Thae Bok, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, told a rally of more than 100,000 people, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

The North also held firm to its demand that the U.S. lift financial restrictions that have strangled Pyongyang's access to banks abroad as a condition to return to disarmament talks.

Washington has repeatedly rejected that request, and appears even more unlikely to alter its hard-line approach to the communist nation in the wake of the nuclear test &

leaving the potential for the crisis to escalate further.

"If the U.S. makes a concession to some degree, we will also make a concession to some degree, whether it be bilateral talks or six-party talks," Kim was quoted as telling a Chinese envoy, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo daily reported.

The North Korean leader also told the Chinese visitors "he is sorry about the nuclear test," the newspaper reported, citing a diplomatic source in China.

Kim also said "we have no plans for additional nuclear tests," South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Friday, citing an unidentified diplomatic source in Beijing.

North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, also said Friday the country was willing to seek a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

"We believe that the nuclear test that we've already held gives us full deterrent, sufficient deterrent power, and we hope to return to six-party talks," he told ABC television in Pyongyang, referring to the nuclear negotiations.

Kim Kye Gwan added that the North has not indicated it is planning a second test and that only "others have said that."

Although officials in the region have suggested the North could be preparing for another test, Pyongyang would also be hesitant to use up its limited supply of radioactive material. North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium for about a half-dozen bombs, although estimates vary due to the limited intelligence on the country's nuclear program.

The North has long insisted its nuclear program is aimed at deterring a U.S. invasion, and that having the bomb enhances regional stability by putting it on equal terms with Washington.

"The recent nuclear test was a quite just decision to defend the supreme interests of the state and the security of the nation from the U.S. imperialists' threat of aggression, avert a new war and defend peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," Choe said in Pyongyang's central Kim Il Sung square.

To give up its weapons, the North has insisted that the U.S. abandon its "hostile" attitude &

which Pyongyang sees in actions ranging from the recent financial restrictions, to U.S. troops' continued presence in South Korea, to allegations about North Korea's disregard for human rights.

The North has refused since last November to return to nuclear talks that include the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Pyongyang has sought to bolster its negotiating position by a series of provocative actions, test-firing a barrage of missiles in July and performing its recent nuclear test.

Those moves have brought unprecedented pressure against the North, with the strongest U.N. action against the country since it invaded the South to start the Korean War in 1950. That war ended in a 1953 cease-fire that persists to this day.

There were signs the North's most critical ally, China, was moving to comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution against Pyongyang for its nuclear test.

On Friday, all four major Chinese state-owned banks and British-owned HSBC Corp. said they had stopped financial transfers to the North &

a step beyond what the U.N. sanctions require and a likely blow to a weak economy that relies on China as a link to the outside world.