By Blaine Harden and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 27, 2008
KYOTO, Japan, June 26 -- President Bush moved Thursday to drop North Korea from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism and to lift some trading sanctions, after the isolated totalitarian state turned over a long-delayed report that includes details of plutonium production in its nuclear program.
Nearly two years after North Korea stunned the world by detonating a small nuclear device, Bush said the declaration marked the start of an "action for action" process meant to end with full dismantling of the highly militarized country's nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons.
Bush took office with an uncompromising approach to North Korea, designating it as part of an "axis of evil." Later the administration moved toward engagement, sometimes looking the other way when the North faltered on its pledges.
The communist state was six months late filing the report and omitted much of the information originally demanded, but U.S. officials greeted it Thursday as a significant step forward, while stressing that the job is just beginning.
"The United States has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang," the North's capital, Bush said in a Rose Garden statement. The United States will continue to demand full verification that the nuclear program has been completely shut down. "We remain deeply concerned about North Korea's human rights abuses . . . nuclear testing and proliferation, ballistic missile programs and the threat it continues to pose," he said.
The disarmament process has been tediously negotiated in six-country talks, with the North promising to give up its nuclear program in steps in return for aid and the end of sanctions. A highly photogenic next step is expected Friday afternoon, when the North's government has said it will blow up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear plant.
Over the past nine months, technicians -- often working under the eye of U.S. experts -- have substantially disabled that facility, North Korea's major reactor. International television networks have been invited to document a demolition that U.S. officials say will both symbolize abandoned nuclear aspirations and make any future restarting of the plant more difficult.'A Lot Missing'
The 60-page declaration, handed over to Chinese officials in Beijing, reports on three separate "campaigns" of plutonium production from the early 1990s to 2005, according to a senior State Department official familiar with some of its contents. Plutonium, extremely radioactive, can be the main explosive material in nuclear bombs.
Of key interest will be how much plutonium the North Koreans say they made and whether they are perceived as declaring all of it. Estimates range from 30 to 50 kilograms.
The document was not released to the public, but officials said it did not address three key international concerns: a list of North Korea's nuclear weapons; a possible program to enrich uranium; and suspected sale of nuclear technology to other countries, including Syria.
Nuclear weapons experts had mixed reactions. "There is some important progress represented by the agreement, but it's a worrisome omission with regard to Syria and highly enriched uranium. So there's a lot missing in this deal, and a lot wrong with this deal," said Michael J. Green, who was a Korea specialist on the National Security Council until 2005 and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The North Koreans "may conclude there is no serious consequence for testing weapons or transferring technology."
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and now president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said the United States had made relatively small concessions to win significant steps from the North Koreans. "They're pretty cheap to buy off -- sanctions and the terrorism list is not a huge thing to give up," he said.'Brazenly' Helping Syria
North Korea will be a major foreign policy challenge for the next U.S. president.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican presidential candidate, cautioned Thursday that destruction of Yongbyon's cooling tower is still only a "modest step" and added: "It is important to remember our goal has been the full, permanent and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." Washington must maintain diplomatic and economic pressure on the North until it fulfills all its obligations under six-nation talks, he said.
McCain's Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), said that outstanding questions about the nuclear program must be answered and that he supported "direct and aggressive diplomacy" with the North.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed the hope the North Koreans would "seize" the current opportunity to "improve relations with the United States -- as well as their neighbors -- by faithfully fulfilling their obligations." He added: "If they do their part, I am confident that we will do ours."
Some of the toughest criticism came from Republicans. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a statement that "even while negotiating the agreement announced today, Pyongyang continued to brazenly assist another state sponsor of terrorism, Syria, in the development of an illicit nuclear program until an Israeli airstrike destroyed the facility in the Syrian desert last September."
North Korea has agreed to verification principles that will allow outside experts to confirm the accuracy and completeness of information contained in the declaration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Thursday in Kyoto, where she had come for a meeting of foreign ministers of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.
Early next week, diplomats from the six countries that are party to the nuclear talks -- North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- are to meet in Beijing. They will begin working out details for verifying the declaration's information and removing the North's plutonium from the country, U.S. officials said.
Bush said Thursday that the disclosure was enough to warrant a relaxation of some of the steps that isolate the government of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.
Provisions of the Trading With the Enemy Act will be lifted by proclamation, he said. In addition, North Korea's name will be removed from the list of state terrorism sponsors in 45 days, after congressional notification.Worries in Japan
While North Korea will no longer be officially considered an enemy, Bush and other officials in his administration emphasized Thursday that a complex web of other U.S. laws and sanctions remains in place, blocking a broad range of aid, trade and commercial activity.
By handing over the disclosure document Thursday, North Korea clears the way for substantial shipments of food, fuel and other aid. Severe food shortages have been predicted in North Korea for this summer; U.S. officials have pledged half a million tons of food.
The decision to remove North Korea from the terrorism list deeply worries Japan, the closest U.S. ally in Asia. It has argued that North Korea must first come clean with full details of its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s. The fate of eight Japanese whom North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping but who the North says died years ago has become an obsession in Japan.
Officials said that Bush telephoned Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on Wednesday to tell him that the United States remains concerned about the abduction issue. "The United States will never forget the abduction of Japanese citizens," he said in his Rose Garden statement.
"No one in Japan is satisfied, but the Bush administration can say we have pressured North Korea to reopen negotiations with Japan about the abductees," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu.
Cossa said that if North Korea is removed from the terrorism list, the principal regional losers will be "Japan and the image of the United States in Japan."
"The U.S. is now seen as less reliable than it has been for years," he said.
Minoru Morita, a political analyst in Tokyo, predicted that the U.S. move "will probably light a small fire to Japanese nationalism and anti-Americanism."
If there is a clear winner from Thursday's diplomatic maneuvering, it is North Korea, Cossa said. He noted that North Korea delivered its declaration six months late and reported nothing on Syria or uranium. "Even though the North Koreans don't keep their promises very well, they demand that everybody else keep theirs," Cossa added.
Wright reported from Washington. Correspondent Jill Drew in Beijing and special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo and Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.