WASHINGTON — 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 Saturday, 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 last June but never took action after U.S.-North Korean talks on a plan to verify North Korea's claims on its nuclear programs broke down.
Thursday, 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 terror list. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the North Korean announcement "a regrettable step but one that is reversible."
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher 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 said Thursday. "As North Korea meets its obligations, we are fully prepared to meet our obligations."