The United States removed North Korea from its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism Saturday, in a last-ditch effort to salvage a nuclear deal with the communist state before President Bush leaves office.
After intensive negotiations, the Bush administration dropped its demand for agreement on a plan to verify the North’s recent nuclear declaration before “delisting.” But U.S. officials insisted that Pyongyang accepted the required measures, even if a formal “protocol” had not been finalized.
“Every single element of verification that we sought going in is part of this package,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a rare weekend briefing.
Mr. Bush notified Congress of his intention to take North Korea off the terrorist list after Pyongyang submitted its nuclear declaration in June. The administration did not delist North Korea within the required 45-day period, saying the verification protocol had to be established first.
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The North Koreans, however, insisted that the chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher R. Hill, had promised them removal from the list after submission of the declaration, not the protocol. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent Mr. Hill back to Pyongyang earlier this month to break the impasse.
Trying to find a compromise and move forward with the deal reached last year in six-country negotiations, the two sides agreed that North Korea will be delisted immediately, but the verification protocol will be “finalized and adopted by the six parties in the near future.”
In the meantime, they agreed on “understandings” that “will serve as the baseline” for the protocol, the State Department said.
Those measures include “the use of scientific procedures, including sampling and forensic activities,” the department said. “Experts from all six parties may participate in verification activities, including experts from non-nuclear states,” and the International Atomic Energy Agency “will have an important consultative and support role.”
“All measures contained in the verification protocol will apply to the plutonium-based program and any uranium-enrichment and proliferation activities,” the State Department said. “Experts will have access to all declared facilities and, based on mutual consent, to undeclared sites.”
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The “mutual consent” clause could allow the North to block access to undeclared sites, said Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation. But she defended the language as a standard part of inspection deals that Washington has negotiated in the past.
“The idea of mutual consent is not a showstopper for us,” she said. “There should be no anticipation by anybody that there are not going to be bumps in the road. This is going to be a bumpy road. However, we are building a road.”
The six parties are the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and North Korea. Last year’s deal is aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear programs. Earlier this year, the North almost disabled its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, but several weeks ago, it said it was beginning to restore the reactor because Washington had not kept its word on delisting.
The only countries left on the terrorist list are Iran, Cuba, Syria and Sudan.
Pyongyang’s removal angered Japan, because it has not resolved its own issues with the North, including the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by the reclusive state in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr. Bush called Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso to assure him that Washington still supports Tokyo’s efforts in that respect.
Republicans who accuse the administration of being too soft on the North responded with criticism to the delisting. They questioned the negotiating tactics of Mr. Hill, who was conspicuously absent from the State Department briefing Saturday.
“I am profoundly disappointed,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Given the regime’s decision to restart its plutonium reactor at Yongbyon and actions barring access to the site by inspectors from the [IAEA], it is clear that North Korea has no intention of meeting its commitment to end its nuclear program.”
Analysts said North Korea is in a strong position to negotiate because it knows the Bush administration wants measurable progress by January.
“Even if a solution is not found immediately, the fact that useful dialogue is ongoing will make it easier for the next administration to continue a process that shows some prospect of success,” said Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York.
Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain said he would not support the easing of sanctions unless the U.S. is able to “fully verify” the nuclear declaration Pyongyang submitted on June 26.
“It is not clear that the latest verification arrangement will enable us to do so,” he said.
He also expressed concern that U.S. allies in Asia, particularly Japan, had not been fully involved in the diplomatic process.
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama called North Korea’s agreement to the verification measures a “modest step forward in dismantling its nuclear weapons programs” and described Pyongyang’s removal from the U.S. blacklist as an “appropriate response, as long as there is a clear understanding that if North Korea fails to follow through there will be immediate consequences.”
He also called for multilateral diplomacy and greater coordination with U.S. partners.