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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Five Japanese were repatriated with family members from the North after a visit by Japan's prime minister to Pyongyang in 2002. But North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped only 13 Japanese, with the five returned being the only survivors.

The fate of the kidnapped has been a political sensation in Japan, firing a level of anger at North Korea that has kept Japan on a hard-line stance toward Pyongyang. North Korea also continues to harbor four Japanese Red Army radicals who joined in an airline hijacking in 1970, according to the State Department.

Even as the six-party nuclear talks made progress over the past year, however, the abduction issue between Japan and North Korea has remained in a stalemate, with Japan refusing for now to contribute energy aid that is part of the package aimed at enticing the North to denuclearize.

Though behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure from Japan may be easing slightly under a new prime minister, Bush will find it painful to move North Korea off the terrorism list as long as Japanese victims remain unaccounted for.

In any case, the decision will be Bush's—and grounded more in diplomatic and political calculations than in any assessment about terrorism.

—With Kevin Whitelaw