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.
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."
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.
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.
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.