WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush on Thursday lifted trade sanctions against North Korea and moved to remove it from the U.S. terrorism blacklist, a remarkable turnaround in policy toward the communist regime he once branded as part of an "axis of evil."
The announcement at the White House came after 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.
Bush called the declaration a positive step along a long road to get the nation to give up its nuclear weapons. Yet, he remained wary of the regime, which has lied about its nuclear work before. And North Korea's declaration, received six months late, falls short of what the administration once sought, leaving it open to criticism from those who want the U.S. to take an even tougher stance against the regime.
"We will trust you only to the extent you fulfill your promises," Bush said in the Rose Garden. "I'm pleased with the progress. I'm under no illusions. This is the first step. This isn't the end of the process. It is the beginning of the process."
Conservative Republicans — once Bush's closest allies in efforts to confront North Korea's nuclear aspirations — came out strongly against his decision. But with only 45 days until the change takes effect, there appears to be little they can do. To block the North's removal, opponents would have to push legislation through a Congress controlled by Democrats who have largely favored the administration's efforts at engaging the North.
"It's shameful," John Bolton, Bush's former U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, said of the president's decision. "This represents the final collapse of Bush's foreign policy." ''Profound disappointment" was the reaction of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California said the only thing likely to derail the North's removal from the terror list in the next 45 days was a disclosure of additional "North Korean skullduggery."
To demonstrate that it is serious about foregoing its nuclear weapons, North Korea is planning the televised destruction of a 65-foot-tall cooling tower at its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. The cooling tower is a key element of the reactor, but blowing it up — with the world watching — has little practical meaning because the reactor has already been nearly disabled.
Specifically, Bush erased trade sanctions imposed on North Korea under the Trading With the Enemy Act, and notified Congress that, in 45 days, it intends to take North Korea off the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism.
"If North Korea continues to make the right choices it can repair its relationship with the international community ... If North Korea makes the wrong choices, the United States and its partners in the six-party talks will act accordingly," Bush said.
The declaration, about 60 pages of documentation, is the result of long-running negotiations the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia have been having with Pyongyang. In the next 45 days — the congressionally mandated waiting period for removing North Korea from the terrorism list — the six parties will agree on how best to verify what the regime has declared. The North Koreans have said they will provide access to their facilities, including the reactor core and waste sites.
"They will make available documents, records, operating manuals and the like," said National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. "They've already made available over 19,000 documents. And that the six parties will have access to personnel involved in their nuclear programs."
U.S. officials said the declaration contains detailed data on the amount of plutonium North Korea produced during each of several rounds of production at a now-shuttered plutonium reactor. It is expected to total about 37 kilograms of plutonium — enough to make about a half-dozen bombs.
However, the declaration, which covers nuclear production dating back to 1986, does not contain detailed information about North Korea's suspected program of developing weapons fueled by enriched uranium.
It also does not provide 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.
Hadley said that North Korea has "acknowledged in writing" that the U.S. and its negotiating partners have raised concerns about its enrichment activities and their suspected involvement with Syria. "They have not been out publicly denying, discounting these concerns," Hadley said, "so we're in a situation of not quite admitting, not denying but opening the door for us to be able to try to get greater clarity."
Hadley said U.S. action to ease sanctions was "relatively minor." By taking North Korea off the Trading With Enemies Act, the U.S. is removing licensing requirements for Americans who want to import goods from North Korea; provisions that affect Americans involved in shipping goods from other countries into North Korea; and some prohibitions on financial transfers by the North Korean government.
The president, however, signed an executive order on Thursday to keep two other prohibitions in place. These involve the interaction of Americans with ships flying the North Korean flag; and the freezing of certain kinds of assets first placed on hold in 2000.
The president insisted the U.S. was not giving North Korea a free ride, saying the U.S. action would have little impact on North Korea's financial and diplomatic isolation. "It will remain one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world," Bush said. All U.N. sanctions, for example, will remain in place.
Bush said the United States would monitor North Korea closely and "if they don't fulfill their promises, more restrictions will be placed on them."
Bush said that to end its isolation, North Korea must, for instance, dismantle all of its nuclear facilities and resolve outstanding questions on its highly enriched uranium and proliferation activities "and end these activities in a way that we can fully verify."
Bush thanked all members of the six-party talks, but singled out Japan. Tokyo has argued that the U.S. decision to remove North Korea from the list of terrorist nations should be linked to progress in solving North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.
"The United States will never forget the abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans," said Bush who called Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on Wednesday to express U.S. concern about the issue. "We will continue to closely cooperate and coordinate with Japan and press North Korea to swiftly resolve the abduction issue."