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U.S. may take N. Korea off the terrorism list

Washington's objective is to ease tensions and get Pyongyang to continue dismantling its nuclear program.

October 10, 2008|Glenn Kessler | Washington Post

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 get the government in Pyongyang to eliminate its nuclear weapons programs. President Bush had promised to delist North Korea in June but did not do so after U.S.-North Korean talks on a plan to verify the regime's claims on its nuclear programs broke down.

Amid the heightened tensions, North Korea on Thursday 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 nuclear watchdog agency said in a statement. But a diplomat in Vienna said the inspectors had not been ordered to leave North Korea, only to stop their monitoring.

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 the nation's removal from the terrorism list. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the North Korean announcement was "a regrettable step but one that is reversible."

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill visited Pyongyang last week, and U.S. officials said he proposed that 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 told reporters Thursday. "As North Korea meets its obligations, we are fully prepared to meet our obligations."

Some sources said they had been told the delisting would take place as soon as Saturday. But McCormack said in an e-mail, "I can assure you that a decision has not been made."

U.S. officials have been noticeably quiet about what, if any, North Korean proposals Hill brought back to Washington after three days of talks. McCormack and his deputy, Robert Wood, have refused to answer questions all week about the results of Hill's trip, and Hill has not responded to e-mails and phone calls.

Conservative critics of the administration's rapprochement with North Korea are poised to pounce on any suggestion that the U.S. has scaled back its demands.

A Japanese news report Thursday -- and sources who have been briefed on the discussions -- said the United States might be prepared to accept a partial verification plan that focused first on North Korea's plutonium program at Yongbyon, leaving for later questions about its alleged uranium enrichment program or its proliferation activities.

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