WASHINGTON - The Bush administration on Thursday will lift some trade sanctions against North Korea and move to take it off the U.S. terrorism blacklist — a remarkable turnaround in policy toward the regime, which President Bush once branded as part of an "axis of evil."
North Korea handed over a long-awaited accounting of its nuclear work to Chinese officials on Thursday, fulfilling a key step in the denuclearization process.
In exchange, the United States is fulfilling its promise to erase trade sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act, and notify Congress that, in 45 days, it intends to take North Korea off the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism, White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
"The United States welcomes the North Korean declaration of its nuclear programs," she said.
"North Korea has pledged to disable all its nuclear facilities and tomorrow will destroy the cooling tower of the Yongbyon reactor," she said. It is turning over information "essential to verifying that North Korea is ending all of its nuclear programs and activities."
"There is still more work to be done in order for North Korea to end its isolation," Perino said. "It must dismantle all of its nuclear facilities, give up its separated plutonium, and resolve outstanding questions on its highly enriched uranium and proliferation activities. It must end these activities in a fully verifiable way. "
The action, one step along the road to getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, comes after the United States and four other nations softened their demands on what North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had to declare, and waited an additional six months to see it.
Those seeking a tougher stance on the hardline regime, which previously has lied about its nuclear past, are expected to view the latest declaration as part of a high-stakes diplomatic game
Others will label it a victory for the Bush administration, saying the declaration is a good step forward in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Besides providing information about its nuclear facilities, North Korea's declaration is to provide a verifiable figure on how much plutonium they have.
That still won't answer the question of how many bombs North Korea has stockpiled, but plutonium is the "heart of the game because that is the stuff they make bombs out of," says Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks under way between Pyongyang and the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
It won't illuminate North Korea's suspected program of developing weapons fueled by enriched uranium. As a result of the six-nation nuclear talks, the North has stopped making plutonium and begun disabling its nuclear facilities, but it still has a stockpile of radioactive material that experts believe is enough to build from six to 10 bombs.
The North proved it could build a working nuclear bomb when it carried out an underground nuclear test blast in October 2006. Details on the bombs, however, will be left to the next stage of the talks, when Pyongyang is supposed to abandon all its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea's declaration also won't give a complete accounting of how it allegedly helped Syria build what senior U.S. intelligence officials say was a secret nuclear reactor meant to make plutonium, which can be used to make high-yield nuclear weapons. Israeli jets bombed the structure in the remote eastern desert of Syria in September 2007.
The North is expected in the declaration to say how much plutonium it has produced at its main reactor facility at Yongbyon.
"If we can verifiably determine the amount of plutonium that has been made, we then have an upper hand in understanding what may have happened in terms of weaponization," Rice said earlier Thursday in Japan.