WASHINGTON — President Bush is set to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring nations as early as Saturday in an end-of-term bid to save a deal to eliminate the secretive communist nation's nuclear weapons program, State Department officials said Friday.
The move was being finalized Friday after consultations with U.S. ally Japan, which opposes the action, and what appears to have been a fierce internal debate within the Bush administration, said the officials, who requested anonymity because the announcement hasn't been made yet.
Bush agreed earlier this year to remove North Korea from the terrorist list as part of a pact to freeze its nuclear weapons work, account for nuclear facilities and eventually eliminate its small nuclear arsenal.
But the deal stalled after North Korea rejected a U.S. proposal for intrusive weapons inspections to verify Pyongyang's declaration of its nuclear facilities. With its leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly ailing, North Korea in recent weeks has taken steps to reactivate its Yongbyon nuclear reactor.
Never miss a local story.
By acting now, Bush hopes to salvage an agreement that could give him a foreign policy achievement in the waning days of his tenure. Critics, however, say that North Korea is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons and that U.S. action on the terrorism list would only reward the North's nuclear brinkmanship.
Japan, which wants to know the fate of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and early '80s, has been cool to U.S. plans to remove Pyongyang from the terrorist list. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by phone with her Japanese counterpart Friday, as well as with the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
One of the department officials said that, to satisfy Japan's concerns, Bush would "provisionally" remove North Korea from the list, subject to the North's signing a new agreement on nuclear verification.
Other countries still on the list are Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.
What verification measures the United States and North Korea have agreed upon is unclear.
The chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill, traveled to Pyongyang earlier this month to strike a new deal on verification. He briefed Rice and Bush after his return, but U.S. officials have refused to detail the trip's results.
U.S. officials and outside experts, however, said the agreement could allow a greater role for China, North Korea's sole patron, in verifying the extent of the North's nuclear infrastructure.
A denuclearization agreement reached earlier this year postpones questions about whether in addition to its plutonium program North Korea also has a covert program to enrich uranium for nuclear arms, which it denies. It also denies helping Syria build a nuclear reactor that Israeli jets destroyed last year.
Art Brown, a former senior U.S. intelligence analyst, said that Japan would consider Bush's removal of North Korea from the terrorism list "a major affront. I know that the Japanese strongly object to this action."
Brown, a former National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, said that he favors tough diplomacy with North Korea, but opposes Bush's move. "In some ways, we are reinforcing bad behavior by the North Koreans," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY