BEIJING — North Korea handed over a long-overdue disclosure of its nuclear activity Thursday, and President Bush responded by easing some trade sanctions and pledging to take Pyongyang off a terrorism blacklist.
The coordinated actions marked a watershed in global efforts to coax reclusive North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons in exchange for assistance and recognition.
As a light drizzle fell on China’s capital, North Korean diplomats entered the Foreign Ministry and delivered the lengthy declaration behind closed doors, six months after missing a deadline set out in negotiations with the United States, China and three other nations.
Within minutes, Bush appeared in the White House Rose Garden and hailed North Koreas action as crucial to ending its international isolation.
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“I’m pleased with the progress,” Bush said. “I’m under no illusions that this is the final step. This isn’t the end of the process.”
In the declaration, which wasn't made public, North Korea is thought to have disclosed details of its nuclear programs — which will enable officials to figure out how much plutonium it has — without saying how many nuclear weapons or warheads it's built. Outside experts said the loophole was a sign of desperation by the lame-duck Bush administration to leave a diplomatic legacy in its final months.
“There has been an awful lot of watering down,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea expert at Leeds University in Britain, referring to backtracking from initial demands by the Bush administration against a nation it once termed part of an “axis of evil.”
When the United States joined China, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and Japan in 2003 to begin multinational talks on the Korean nuclear crisis, the Bush administration demanded complete and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear activities, and said international monitors had to be able to verify that it remained that way.
Thursday’s action, however, still leaves doubt about whether Kim Jong Il's regime has made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons or is simply angling for assistance and better relations with its onetime foes.
Bush said that a number of sanctions remained in effect against North Korea, stemming from its poor human rights record, its 2006 underground nuclear test and its proliferation of weapons to other countries.
“The United States has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang,” he said. “We remain deeply concerned about North Korea’s human rights abuses, uranium enrichment activities, nuclear testing and proliferation, ballistic missile programs and the threat it continues to pose to South Korea and its neighbors.”
But, he added, “If North Korea continues to make the right choices, it can repair its relationship with the international community, much as Libya has done over the past few years.” And he warned: “If North Korea makes the wrong choices, the United States and our partners in the six-party talks will respond accordingly.” Libya, once a nemesis of the United States, renounced terrorism in 2003 and said it was giving up weapons of mass destruction, leading Washington to restore diplomatic relations and remove it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Foster-Carter said Kim hadn't yet shown his hand as to whether he was willing to give up his weapons for the diplomatic recognition he craved.
“There is a question at the end of the day if he is going to do a Libya or not,” he said. North Korea’s delivery of its declaration on nuclear activities, and the White House's actions to lift sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act and to remove Pyongyang from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, were crucial to wrapping up a second phase of the nuclear negotiations.
“The next phase is going to be even more difficult and lengthy,” said Daniel Pinkston, the Seoul, South Korea-based deputy director for Northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, which advocates peaceful outcomes to conflict.
“We start dealing with issues like the bombs, getting back into the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and) normalizing relations with the United States and Japan.” Tokyo is uneasy over Washington’s urgency in reaching agreement with Pyongyang. Much of the Japanese public simmers over unresolved cases of citizens snatched from its shores in the 1970s and 1980s by North Korean agents for use in training spies.
Bush said his administration “will never forget” the abduction issue, noting that he'd met with the parents of one abducted Japanese teenager.
The flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the North Korean nuclear program will continue Friday, when workers will destroy the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in front of foreign television crews. Yongbyon, north of the North Korean capital, produced enough nuclear material from its spent fuel rods to make what some Western experts say is six to eight nuclear bombs.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Kyoto, Japan, and will visit China on Sunday and Monday. Still unclear is whether the foreign ministers of other nations in the six-party talks will convene in Beijing then to work out a timetable for North Korea’s denuclearization.
Rice called the North Korean disclosure “a good step forward” and said her counterparts in the talks expect “to have North Korean cooperation as we move forward to nail down the elements of verification.”
(William Douglas contributed to this article from Washington.)