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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.

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That statement followed earlier acknowledgement by US officials Tuesday that the plutonium weapons Pyongyang possesses would not be part of the current declaration. Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of State for East Asian affairs, said in Beijing that the plutonium bombs would be part of a "subsequent phase" in the denuclearization process.

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US hawks on North Korea see that "concession" as part of a pattern of the Bush administration going soft on the North as it pushes to cement a deal before year's end. Last year John Bolton, a former undersecretary of State for arms control, said many Republicans were "brokenhearted" over the administration's approach to North Korea.

Mr. Bolton and some congressional foreign-policy hawks have questioned the administration for continuing the six-party process even after intelligence surfaced last year suggesting that North Korea was helping Syria acquire a nuclear reactor. The suspected reactor site was taken out by Israeli airstrikes last September.

This week, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were in Syria to try to determine exactly what Syria was doing at the now-destroyed site.

But that is not the only issue ruffling the feathers of hard-liners like Bolton. They also object that the US is allowing Pyongyang to leave out disclosure of its suspected uranium enrichment activity from this week's declaration.

Omission of uranium enrichment also figured in the cautious reception that North Korea's declaration received in South Korea, where officials and experts emphasized the hard road ahead before a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is achieved.

South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Kim Sook, said Thursday that the North's declaration "provides an important momentum to the process." But he also emphasized how long it had taken to get this far, and time would remain "the common enemy" of the six-party process since the next steps could be so difficult and take so long.

"It is still many, many miles to go, and the path is getting steeper," says former South Korean foreign minister Song Min Soon, noting that what lies ahead is the dismantling of the North's nuclear weapons, estimated at six to a dozen.

North Korea is known to have imported centrifuges for uranium enrichment, though it is not suspected of ever having gotten far enough with the technology to use it for weapons development. Still, experts like Mr. Klingner of the Heritage Foundation say full disclosure of details of even a partial program is important for determining the extent of international proliferation networks, as well as for verifying all Pyongyang's activities.

Allaying allies' concerns is one reason Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be in Asia through the beginning of next week.

In Japan Thursday and Friday for a G-8 foreign ministers meeting, Secretary Rice will meet with her Japanese counterpart and will be reminded of Japanese concerns that the issue of its citizens abducted by the North in the 1970s and '80s could be lost in Washington's press to conclude a deal with Pyongyang. Beyond that issue are Japan's broader concerns about security in northeast Asia and what a North Korea deal – especially one hammered out in a process led by a rising China – will mean for the region.

Rice is set to be in Seoul Saturday before traveling to China, where the participants in the six-party talks are expected to meet Monday.

The Bush administration, Klingner says, will have to settle for at best a full declaration of North Korea's activities and a dismantlement of Yongbyon by the time it leaves office. But, he says, the US has "lowered the bar" in its quest to get that much.

Donald Kirk in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.