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U.S. eases North Korea's isolation

Bush lifts some sanctions in exchange for pariah nation's step toward nuclear cooperation.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2008

Yongbyon reactor: This February photo was released by US researchers who visited North Korea. Part of the reactor is now scheduled to be destroyed on Friday.

W.K. Luse/AP/file



Even as he declared that "the United States has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang," President Bush on Thursday announced his intention to remove North Korea from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

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That action, along with US plans to remove sanctions that date to the Korean War, follow North Korea's submission of a partial declaration of its past nuclear activities Thursday. And on Friday, the North is scheduled to destroy part of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor that produced plutonium for the country's nuclear weapons.

The administration's moves on North Korea signal a remarkable turnaround for a pariah nation that always figured at the top of Mr. Bush's list of threats. But they also hint at efforts by a presidency in its twilight to fashion a positive historical record – especially on Bush's hallmark theme of national and global security.

After having declared in 2002 an "axis of evil" made up of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, Bush is said to be keen to demonstrate that his presidency is leaving behind a safer world. Adding North Korea to the list of global security threats defanged by Bush policies – a list that administration officials top with Iraq – would enhance the president's legacy, some experts say.

Yet before being able to finally remove North Korea from its dark pantheon, the administration faces a number of high hurdles. These include unresolved questions about evidence of a uranium enrichment program and suspicions that Pyongyang at some point secretly provided Syria with a nuclear installation.

"This is a significant step toward fulfilling part of North Korea's requirements for declaring all of its nuclear activities," says Bruce Klingner, a North Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "But we still need to see considerably more transparency on its uranium-based program and its proliferation activities."

Bush acknowledged as much in a Rose Garden statement Thursday, citing these two outstanding issues before concluding, "This isn't the end of the process. This is the beginning of the process."

What is likely to be the final quid pro quo – the dismantling of Pyongyang's plutonium bombs in exchange for full normalization of relations and integration into the global economy – will have to wait for the next US president. But administration officials speak in terms of having created the "glide path" for that goal to be reached.

Administration officials "are talking about this in legacy terms," says Jim Walsh, a North Korea expert in the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Their view is that leaving with the North Korea nuclear program capped and then shut down will be a lasting achievement of the Bush presidency."

The administration must first face skepticism among foreign-policy hard-liners at home. And some allies, in particular Japan, are concerned that the US may be going too far too fast with a regime that still possesses nuclear weapons and has not answered questions about its proliferation activities.

Japan sounded a cautious note Thursday when its foreign minister, Masahiko Komura, said the declaration North Korea delivered to the Chinese government would have been more meaningful if it had included information on the North's existing nuclear arsenal.

"It would have been better if the declaration had included nuclear weapons," Mr. Komura said, adding that the question remained "whether the declaration will contribute to the complete abandonment of North Korea's nuclear weapons."