WASHINGTON — The Bush administration Saturday removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism after Pyongyang agreed to allow inspectors access to declared nuclear sites, in a deal that drew quick criticism from conservatives.
After weeks of rancorous negotiations, North Korea agreed to resume the disabling of its Yongbyon plutonium plant and permit international inspectors to return.
Although U.S. officials hailed the deal as an important accomplishment, the agreement left unresolved what happens if inspectors seek access to suspicious sites that the regime has not declared. Though they demanded access to other areas, U.S. officials settled for language saying that entry to undeclared sites would be granted based on "mutual consent."
The ambiguities of the deal concerned some Republicans, including presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, who said he still needed to be convinced that the deal was a good one.
"I expect the administration to explain exactly how this new verification agreement advances American interests and those of our allies before I will be able to support any decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism," McCain said.
His Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, said President Bush's decision "is an appropriate response, as long as there is a clear understanding that if North Korea failed to follow through, there will be immediate consequences."
"If North Korea refuses to permit robust verification, we should lead all members of the six-party talks in suspending energy assistance, reimposing sanctions that have recently been waived and considering new restrictions," Obama said.
The administration's position marks a 180-degree turn for a team that came to office in 2001 contending that the Clinton administration had been too lenient in its six-year effort to trade North Korea's nuclear ambitions for economic and political benefits. Now, the Bush administration counts its denuclearization program as one of its most important achievements.
Although the program has been an administration priority, it is a complex undertaking that may stretch on for years and meet resistance from North Korea at every step of the way. U.S. officials acknowledged in a news conference Saturday that daunting obstacles remain.
"Verifying North Korea's nuclear declaration will be a serious challenge," said Patricia McNerney, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation. "This is the most secret and opaque regime in the entire world."
The North Koreans had been deeply upset that the U.S. had not dropped them from the terrorist list as a reward for their limited cooperation to date. U.S. officials emphasized that although North Korea's excision from the list lifts a stigma, it will have little practical effect, because other U.S. laws still impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on the impoverished Stalinist regime.
Officials have been hinting that they were near an accord for several days, but they had to deal with resistance from the Japanese, who had reservations about removing North Korea from the list before it had adequately addressed their concerns about its abductions of Japanese citizens.
On Saturday morning Bush called Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso. In a statement, the White House said the U.S. would "continue to strongly support Japan's position on the abduction issue and will urge North Korea to take immediate steps to implement the commitments" it has made on the issue.
The deal between North Korea and the U.S. and its four partners in the talks -- China, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- focuses on Pyongyang's plutonium-based nuclear program and leaves unresolved other key issues, such as its missiles and arsenal of nuclear weapons. But the Bush administration has decided that the plutonium-based program has highest priority.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her chief North Korea negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, faced substantial resistance to the deal within the administration. But they prevailed with arguments that it was far better than nothing.
Gary Samore, a top nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration, said in an interview Friday that he believed the deal represented progress and did not concede too much.
L. Gordon Flake, an Asia specialist at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, said he had serious reservations about the approach the administration has taken on verification. He believes that the denuclearization deal represents a "modest step forward."
And some Republicans questioned the deal.
"With today's action, the administration has given up a critical instrument of leverage," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "By rewarding North Korea before the regime has carried out its commitments, we are encouraging this regime to continue its illicit nuclear program and violate its pledge to no longer provide nuclear assistance to extremist regimes."