By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008
The Bush administration removed North Korea from its terrorism blacklist yesterday, a move that was aimed at salvaging a sputtering nuclear disarmament deal but that sparked internal controversy, infuriated Japan and drew some Republican opposition.
Critics of the accord with a charter member of President Bush's "axis of evil" said the administration had succumbed to the brinkmanship typical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who two days ago barred inspectors from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, threatened to resume production of weapons-grade plutonium and appeared to prepare for another nuclear test.
But President Bush decided late Friday that North Korea had earned the move by showing enough cooperation on broad principles for verifying its nuclear claims, and yesterday morning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed the document officially deleting North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. U.S. officials said North Korea, in turn, agreed not to restart its partially disabled reactor.
In 2002, Bush had famously lumped North Korea with Iraq and Iran, declaring, "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil." But preserving the nuclear deal with Pyongyang gives the lame-duck administration boasting rights of a diplomatic accomplishment it can pass on to the next president.
The decision reflects a striking evolution in the administration's foreign policy, toward a more pragmatic effort to open contacts and strike understandings with countries such as Iran and Syria, once deemed too belligerent for diplomatic contact. But it also runs the risk of alienating key supporters.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, issued a notably skeptical statement Friday night, warning the administration "to avoid reaching for agreement for its own sake."
In Japan, where North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens many years ago remains an emotional issue, officials were furious about the U.S. concession. Rice and her Japanese counterpart had a tense and lengthy conversation Friday morning, and Bush called Prime Minister Taro Aso yesterday to smooth things over. But Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, in Washington, told reporters that the U.S. decision was "extremely regrettable," adding: "I believe abductions amount to terrorist acts."
The State Department, in a rare Saturday news briefing, brought forward one of the chief negotiators and two internal skeptics of the verification deal to show a united front. But U.S. officials acknowledged privately that a key factor was the growing concern that North Korea could test a nuclear weapon in the final 100 days of Bush's presidency.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the main architect of the administration's rapprochement with North Korea, negotiated the plan over three days in Pyongyang this month, after North Korea initially balked at demands for "full access to any site, facility or location" deemed relevant to the nuclear program.
Officials declined to release the text of the agreement but said North Korea had bent on two key points: potential access to facilities not included in Pyongyang's nuclear declaration and permission for inspectors to take environmental samples. North Korea also dropped objections to Japanese and South Korean participation in the inspections, officials said.
The text uses vague terms for some of the purported concessions -- it does not explicitly mention the taking of samples, for example -- but the State Department's assertions rest on a number of oral agreements, sources familiar with the document said. Rice instructed diplomats last week to obtain greater clarity from North Korea on some of the oral understandings before she signed off on the deal.
The four other countries involved in what are known as the six-party talks, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, must endorse the verification plan. China played an important supporting role in the negotiations, but Japan has indicated that it might seek amendments.
Officials acknowledged that they do not have permission to visit the site of North Korea's 2006 nuclear test or any military facilities possibly involved in the nuclear program. Experts will have access to facilities at the Yongbyon reactor site and some academic institutions; visits to additional sites will be subject to negotiations. Officials said it will be months, if not years, before questions about North Korea's nuclear program are answered.
"This is going to be a bumpy road," said Assistant Secretary of State Paula A. DeSutter, the chief of the verification bureau. "However, we are building a road."
In a sign of internal tensions, DeSutter, whose office was barred from knowing the details of the deal until Friday morning, declined to dismiss complaints about it from John R. Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations and her former boss as undersecretary for arms control in Bush's first term. "John is the epitome of a skeptical policymaker, and that's appropriate," she said.
Although Bolton is a well-known hawk on North Korea, other experts also have expressed concerns.
"There is a real danger that Pyongyang will pull a bait and switch now that sanctions have been lifted," said Michael J. Green, Bush's former top aide for Asia policy. "The credibility of this agreement really hangs on what happens next, including how we repair the damage done with Tokyo."
But David Albright, a former weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, expressed sympathy for the administration's dilemma. "North Korea was more than willing to walk away from this thing," he said. "This is about as good as you could get at this moment."
Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, called the plan "a modest step forward" and the decision on the terrorism list "an appropriate response."
North Korea, which was placed on the list after the bombing of a South Korean jetliner in 1987, was until yesterday one of five countries deemed to have "repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism." Iran, Syria, Sudan and Cuba remain on the list, which subjects them to severe export controls and a ban on receiving U.S. aid. North Korea first sought removal from the list in 2000, but the Clinton administration refused, citing Japan's concerns.
State Department officials said they would first seek answers to questions about North Korea's plutonium program, the source of its nuclear weapons, leaving to later concerns about an alleged uranium enrichment program and North Korea's role in building a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria. Patricia A. McNerney, principal deputy assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, said some answers to those issues might emerge from interviews over the plutonium program.
When Bush took office, he was openly skeptical of a Clinton-era agreement that had frozen North Korea's plutonium program and criticized the Clinton administration for making concessions to Pyongyang. After Bush let the accord lapse in 2002 when intelligence analysts discovered signs of an apparent effort to enrich uranium, North Korea promptly produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for more than a half-dozen weapons, allowing it to detonate a nuclear device for the first time.
Since the test, Bush has scaled back his demands in an effort to keep negotiations going, including returning North Korean funds tied to illicit activities and minimizing concerns about the uranium program.