In a move drawing fire from hard-line critics and praise from arms control advocates, President Bush today announced the lifting of some sanctions on the nuclear renegade state of North Korea after it submitted a declaration of its nuclear activities and materials.
The North Korean declaration—given to China, which chairs a six-party group of countries negotiating over eventual Pyongyang's denuclearization—was six months overdue, and it falls short of the complete reckoning that Bush administration officials had long said was necessary. As such, it marks another milestone in Bush's shift toward step-by-step multilateral diplomacy to try to rein in North Korea's nuclear breakout.
The secretive, communist regime conducted a nuclear test blast two years ago. But after negotiations resumed, it shut down its plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear complex nearly a year ago, and later it took many of the steps needed to verifiably disable the facility.
The process has frequently bogged down in squabbling over implementing next steps, but in anticipation of this week's progress, North Korea has invited foreign television crews into the country to record the demolition of the cooling tower at Yongbyon.
Bush took two steps today. He ended the nearly 58-year run of restrictions on North Korea under the Trading With the Enemy Act—sanctions started by President Truman in 1950. And Bush told Congress that he plans to rescind North Korea's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism in 45 days.
But the comments of Bush and senior policymakers were tinged with skepticism—a legacy of a nuclear dispute full of twists and turns, as well as the obvious discomfort the president has in engaging a regime he assigned to his "axis of evil."
Bush hastened to say that U.S. officials would be using the 45-day period to solidify "a comprehensive and rigorous" verification agreement. Most likely with conservative unhappiness in mind, he also played down any benefit North Korea might receive from his moves. "The two actions America is taking will have little impact on North Korea's financial and diplomatic isolation," he said. "North Korea will remain one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world."
The cautious tone was in evidence in a State Department release ticking off continuing sanctions in 19 different categories related to the North's proliferation, nuclear testing, human-rights abuses, and other issues. Bush also sought to reassure a skeptical ally, Japan, about the moves. Tokyo wants to keep the pressure on Pyongyang to resolve the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents.
Though not yet publicly released, the North Korean document apparently bypasses key questions that have been on the minds of U.S. officials. It is believed to declare an amount of plutonium that it says it has produced but not state how many bombs it has built.
Pyongyang's story is also incomplete in other regards, U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley acknowledged today. North Korea apparently did not shed light on nuclear assistance to Syria at an alleged reactor plant that was bombed by Israel last year. Nor did it explain whatever efforts it has made to develop a uranium enrichment program—an initiative suggested by past equipment purchases.
Instead, Hadley said, the North Korean message is that "we are not now engaged in any enrichment program or any proliferation activities and will—we will not in the future."
The administration's basic response: North Korea still hasn't revealed enough, but heavy verification—if accepted by the North—should handle the problem. "We'll see" is how Bush put it today. As nearly always with North Korea, the harder parts remain to be done.