WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Saturday removed North Korea from its terrorism blacklist in a bid to revive faltering denuclearization talks in the final months of the Bush administration.
The decision was made after North Korea agreed to a series of verification measures of its nuclear facilities, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
“The Secretary of State has rescinded the designation of the DPRK as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, effective immediately,” McCormack told a news conference.
As part of the deal, North Korea would resume disablement of its nuclear facilities and allow in U.N. and U.S. inspectors who were ordered out.
Conservative Republicans immediately slammed the move, with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, calling the verification measures agreed on “pathetic.”
“I think it is a real shame. North Korea has won about a 95 percent victory here and achieved an enormous political objective in exchange for which the United States has got nothing,” Bolton told Reuters.
Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, ranking Republican on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said she was “profoundly disappointed” that the North had been rewarded for activities that “threatened critical U.S. interests.”
McCormack staunchly defended the decision. “Every element of verification that we sought is included in this package.”
Under the deal, which still has to formalized by the six parties dealing with North Korea, experts would have access to all declared nuclear sites and “based on mutual consent” to sites not declared by the North, said McCormack.
In addition, the United Nations atomic watchdog body, the IAEA, would play an important role in verifying Pyongyang’s atomic activities and the United States could take out samples of nuclear materials to check.
While being taken off the list, McCormack made clear North Korea would still be subject to numerous sanctions as a result of its 2006 nuclear test and there was still a long way to go.
North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006 using plutonium and it is suspected of pursuing a uranium enrichment program, which would provide a second path to make fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The latest measures agreed on include both the plutonium-based program and any uranium enrichment and proliferation activities, McCormack said.
The United States’ drive to revive a deal came as secretive North Korea had stepped up efforts to rebuild its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and banned U.N. monitors from the Soviet-era plant — moves Washington say will now be reversed.
With three months until the Bush administration’s term ends in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had hoped to notch up a foreign policy success with North Korea — which President George W. Bush branded as part of an “axis of evil.”
Taking Pyongyang off the list was held up this week by Tokyo’s insistence on settlement of the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea years ago.
Bush spoke to Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso on Saturday and reaffirmed support for Japan on the abduction of its citizens, said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
But Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, in Washington to attend G7 meetings on the global financial crisis, called the delisting of North Korea “extremely regrettable,” according to the Kyodo news agency.
“I believe abductions amount to terrorist acts,” Nakagawa, a hardliner on North Korea, told reporters, expressing the frustration of the families of the abductees.
Under a broad accord struck in 2005 between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, Pyongyang agreed to abandon all nuclear programs in exchange for potential economic and diplomatic benefits.
Under a subsequent pact, the United States suggested it would remove North Korea from the terrorism list in exchange for Pyongyang providing a “complete and correct” declaration of all of its nuclear programs.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said agreement on the verification measures was a “modest step” in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and showed the need for aggressive and sustained diplomacy.
If the North did not meet its obligations, Obama said the United States and its partners in the talks — South Korea, Japan, China and Russia — should suspend energy assistance and reimpose sanctions on North Korea.
Republican candidate John McCain said before the announcement that it was unclear whether the verification arrangement was adequate and it did not address the issue of the abduction of Japanese citizens by the North.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles and Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Anthony Boadle