President Bush moved Thursday to drop North Korea from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism and 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 part of an “axis of evil.” Later the administration moved toward engagement, sometimes looking the other way when the North faltered on pledges. The nation 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.
“The United States has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang,” the North's capital, Bush said in a Rose Garden statement. The U.S. 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,” he said.
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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 this 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.
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.
North Korea will be a major foreign policy challenge for the next U.S. president.
North Korea has agreed to verification principles that will allow outside experts to confirm the accuracy and completeness of information contained in it, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Thursday in Kyoto.
Early next week, diplomats from six countries –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.