U.S. Seems Set to Take N. Korea off Terror List

North Korea has told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it is ending its nuclear freeze. Video by AP
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2008

The Bush administration appears poised to provisionally remove North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, perhaps as soon as today, sources close to the administration said.

The move would keep alive a faltering effort to eliminate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs. President Bush had promised to delist North Korea in June but never took action after U.S.-North Korean talks on a plan to verify North Korea's assertions on its nuclear programs broke down.

Yesterday, heightening the tension, North Korea barred international inspectors from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which has been monitoring the site.

North Korea "also stated that it has stopped its [nuclear] disablement work" and "is preparing to restart the facilities at Yongbyon," the IAEA's statement said. But a diplomat in Vienna said the inspectors have not been ordered to leave North Korea, only to halt their monitoring.

The move came as the Bush administration has been engaged in deep debate over whether to adjust its inspection plan to accommodate North Korea's concerns and when to announce North Korea's removal from the terrorism list. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the North Korean announcement "a regrettable step but one that is reversible."

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill visited Pyongyang last week, and U.S. officials said he brought a proposal to have North Korea submit an approved verification plan to China, the host of the six-nation disarmament talks, before the United States announced North Korea's delisting. But the verification plan would not be officially unveiled until after the U.S. announcement, allowing Pyongyang to say it had not taken the first step.

"This is an action-for-action process," McCormack told reporters yesterday. "As North Korea meets its obligations, we are fully prepared to meet our obligations."

Several sources said they had been told the delisting would take place as soon as today, based on North Korea's willingness to show cooperation on the verification plan. But McCormack said in an e-mail, "I can assure you that a decision has not been made."

U.S. officials have been noticeably quiet about what, if any, North Korean proposals Hill brought back to Washington after three days of talks. McCormack and his deputy, Robert A. Wood, have refused to answer questions all week about the results of Hill's trip, while the normally loquacious Hill has not responded to e-mails and phone calls.

Hill briefed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at length about his trip, and then Rice briefed Bush, officials said. But the information has been very tightly held to a handful of top officials.

Conservative critics of the administration's rapprochement with North Korea are poised to pounce on any suggestion that the administration has scaled back its demands. A Japanese news report yesterday -- and sources who have been briefed on the discussions -- said the United States might be prepared accept a partial verification plan that focused first on North Korea's plutonium program at Yongbyon, leaving until later questions about its alleged uranium enrichment program or its proliferation activities.

Advocates of this approach say that it would prevent North Korea from acquiring more plutonium and would keep the focus on the most dangerous part of its arsenal. But former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton said such an approach would be "pathetic" because "Yongbyon has been pored over for years."

In July, the United States made broad demands on North Korea, requesting "full access to all materials" at sites that might have had a nuclear purpose in the past. It sought "full access to any site, facility or location" deemed relevant to the nuclear program, including military facilities, according to the four-page verification document. Investigators would be able to take photographs and make videos, remain on site as long as necessary, make repeated visits and collect and remove samples.

North Korea a few weeks later submitted a counterproposal, agreeing to a number of U.S. demands but objecting to two key elements: visits to nuclear facilities that would remain active, and the taking of environmental samples. In August, the United States submitted a counterproposal that was somewhat more vague than the first plan but retained key elements. But North Korean leader Kim Jong Il suffered an apparent stroke, and the talks lapsed until Hill traveled to North Korea last week.

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