N. Korea status improves

KYOTO, Japan — 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 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 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, North Korea's major reactor.

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 65 pounds to 110 pounds.

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 a 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 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.

Time line

1986: North Korea starts operation of a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon after seven years of construction with Soviet help.

Jan. 29, 2002: President Bush labels North Korea, Iran and Iraq an "axis of evil."

Jan. 11, 2003: North Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Feb. 10, 2005: North Korea announces it has nuclear weapons.

Oct. 9, 2006: North Korea conducts an underground nuclear test blast.

July 14, 2007: North Korea shuts down its Yongbyon reactor.

Man in the news

Christopher Hill, 55, the man in the middle of the Bush administration's North Korea talks, has been described as a hothead who delivers. Given a long leash to try to cut a deal, he is more optimistic than his bosses about the chance of success. He is instantly recognizable on the streets of Asian capitals after dozens of visits to the nations trying to coax along North Korea and gets mobbed at airports by Asian media.

Associated Press

N. Korea status improves 06/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 1:34pm]

    

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