Taking North Korea Off the U.S. Terrorism List

The Bush administration says OK, with conditions. And that's where things get complicated.

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Sung Kim, a U.S. State Department official, comments on North Korea's stalled promise to disclose all of its nuclear programs.

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For more than two decades, it has been branded a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States. Now, however, North Korea has reason to hope it can get itself off that list of designated pariahs—a label that brings international ostracism and broad U.S. economic sanctions that inhibit business contacts with other countries.

But North Korea is crying foul, claiming that the Bush administration failed to live up to its word to remove Pyongyang from the list by the end of last year. The North Koreans are now citing the delay as part of the reason for the continuing impasse over their nuclear disarmament deal. That impasse has just entered its second month, jeopardizing the administration's chances to resolve one of the biggest foreign policy problems on its watch.

The Bush administration insists it made no blank promise to the Pyongyang regime—and that North Korea remains stuck on the U.S. terrorism list as a result of its refusal to date to comply with the requirements of a disarmament agreement painstakingly put together in negotiations last year involving six countries. In particular, the administration says the North has failed to deliver a credible and complete declaration of all its nuclear assets, which should have happened by December 31. "We need to have that declaration before we could even talk about any next steps," the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said recently. "The agreement that we made with them is that there would be actions for actions."

The administration's argument shows that—far from reflecting just a narrow, technical assessment of a country's recent track record on terrorism—removing a country from the famous list has become a delicate and complicated affair. That's particularly true for an administration whose foreign policy is so deeply rooted in fighting terrorism around the globe. This, after all, is the president who proclaimed a "Global War on Terror," or GWOT.

Some critics, especially conservatives, are poised to see the act of dropping a country's pariah status as a sign of weakness or lack of resolve to hold rogue governments accountable for their misdeeds. So far, only Iraq (after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein) and Libya (after it shed unconventional weapons programs and swore off involvement in terrorism) have been dropped from the list.

Still, it's not surprising that North Korea has seen the nuclear disarmament talks as a golden opportunity to leverage an end to its status on terrorism. And the Bush administration doesn't entirely disagree. It has tried to paint a rosier picture of what relations could look like if the North verifiably disarmed, and it did publicly agree to push ahead on the process of removing Pyongyang from the terrorism list—using carefully chosen diplomatic language—if North Korea keeps taking steps on denuclearization.

The North Korea case is tangled up not only in the uncertain road to nuclear disarmament but also in high-stakes alliance politics with Washington's foremost Asian ally, Japan.

On purely technical grounds, North Korea appears ready to lose its terrorism-sponsor label. "We've moved along in looking at delisting them," Dell Dailey, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said in January. "We haven't formally notified Congress. But to maintain the integrity of our system, it appears that North Korea has now complied with those criteria that we're looking for."

The North is not known to have directly participated in a terrorist attack since a 1987 plane bombing that killed 155 people. Dailey said that U.S. officials are not aware of any recent North Korean support for or complicity with terrorism. He also indicated that North Korea has been asked to affirm that it would not participate in any future terrorism.

But other U.S. officials seemed to suggest that Dailey's comments last month were off the mark and did not herald any near-term moves to delist North Korea.

It isn't just that Pyongyang's terrorism listing now serves as a dangled incentive to reveal what it has in its nuclear portfolio. A critical ally—Japan—has long been urging the administration to go slow on delisting North Korea until it presents a credible accounting of the fate of 12 Japanese citizens who Japan says are unaccounted for after having been abducted years ago by North Korean agents. Japan says 17 in all were nabbed between 1977 and 1983, principally to help train North Korean spies in Japanese language and customs. One infamous case involved Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old schoolgirl grabbed on a beach.