New reports indicate that the US could remove North Korea from the list of nations supporting terrorism very soon, resolving a key issue in convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. But Japanese resistance to the deal may put it on hold.
The Times of London reports that the US could be set to announce North Korea's delisting as soon as today.
According to US and South Korean media reports, and informed sources in Tokyo who spoke to
, American and North Korean negotiators reached a compromise agreement in Pyongyang last week. President Bush will agree to delisting, reportedly as early as today, in return for North Korea's agreement on steps to be taken to verify its nuclear declaration.
The details of the "verification protocol" are still unclear, and will be scrutinised by those who suspect Mr. Bush of caving into the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. Conservatives, including some of the president's former neo-con supporters, object on principle to the deal of cutting a deal with a regime which they regard as murderous, illegitimate and inherently untrustworthy.
North Korea is currently listed by the US as a state supporter of terrorism, but the US agreed to remove North Korea from its list in a nuclear disarmament deal signed in 2007 by both nations, as well as China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. The Christian Science Monitor reported that last month, North Korea announced that it was restarting its nuclear program, which some believe was due in part to the fact the US had not yet removed the country from the State Department's terrorism-sponsor list.
The Times adds that the recent compromise agreement is opposed by Japan, one of the six nations involved in the North Korea nuclear talks.
The "delisting" of North Korea will cause particular dismay in Japan, which is pressing Pyongyang to provide more information about its own citizens who were abducted and brought to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that the US has chosen to reward the North before this issue has been resolved is regarded by many in Tokyo as a betrayal.
Many in the Japanese government regard Washington's rush to move ahead with the nuclear agreement as a transparent attempt to come up with a concrete foreign policy achievement in the last weeks of a struggling administration – and at the expense of a loyal ally.
Taro Aso, the Japanese prime minister, has informed the Bush administration that he cannot accept the North Korean offer, which Washington had urged him to support, two sources familiar with the decision told the Financial Times. ...
Chris Hill, the US negotiator, returned from Pyongyang last week with a North Korean counter-proposal. After several days of debate, the administration decided to accept the offer if the other six-party members – Japan, China, South Korea and Russia – agreed. But Japan has now rejected the proposal.
An informed Japanese source said the deal was rejected because it "seems bad". The Japanese decision has prompted President George W. Bush to instruct his negotiating team to get more concessions from North Korea.
The conflicting reports come after an eventful day for North Korea. The New York Times reported Thursday that North Korea announced that it is banning United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from access to any part of the Yongbyon nuclear plant.
North Korea's decision to bar the international inspectors is the latest move by the country aimed at getting United States negotiators to ease off demands for strict measures to verify whether the North is adhering to that agreement. ...
Mr. Hill and [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice have both kept a tight lid on the talks, but one administration official with knowledge of the negotiations said that they remained centered on how much freedom North Korea was willing to give international weapons inspectors to examine and take samples from suspected nuclear sites. In particular, the North is skittish about allowing inspectors to examine as-yet-undeclared sites, for fear that it would establish a precedent for inspectors to go wherever they want in the country.
The Associated Press (AP) adds that North Korea had already barred IAEA inspectors from the plutonium processing areas of Yongbyon last month. North Korea used the Yongbyon reactor to create the fissile material for its nuclear weapons.
Thursday also saw a report from ABC News that North Korea may be preparing to test another nuclear bomb. North Korea's last nuclear test, on Oct. 9, 2006, spurred the six-nation talks that led to last year's nuclear disarmament agreement.
Satellite imagery over the past two weeks has picked up suspicious activity at a suspected nuclear test site, senior U.S. officials told ABC News. The activity includes tunneling and the movement of large cables – the same type of activity detected before North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006.
U.S. officials are unsure whether North Korea would actually test another bomb or whether this is simply saber rattling – or perhaps proton rattling – designed to put pressure on the U.S. to cave in on the nuclear talks.
"They know we look at this stuff," said one senior official. "It is quite possible they are just screwing with us."
Another senior official said the moves are likely a "negotiating tactic ... they do want to do a deal."
Concerns about North Korea's nuclear program are not limited to the parties involved in the six nation talks. The AP reports that earlier this week at a meeting of the IAEA, Israel "accused Pyongyang of being a black market supplier of conventional arms or nuclear technology to Middle East nations covertly trying to break out of the nonproliferation fold."
While [Israeli delegate David Danieli] did not name suspected culprit nations among the "at least half dozen" countries availing themselves of the North's help, he appeared to be referring in part to Iran and Syria, which are both under IAEA investigation.
Additionally, U.S. officials have said that North Korea's customer list for missiles or related components going back to the mid-1980s include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The AP adds that during its meeting, the IAEA passed a resolution urging North Korea to live up to its pledge to halt its nuclear weapons program.