WASHINGTON – The White House said Wednesday it will move quickly to lift some trade sanctions and remove North Korea from a U.S. terrorism blacklist if the communist regime in Pyongyang hands over a long-delayed accounting of its nuclear weapons activities.
North Korea has suggested it will release its declaration this week, fulfilling a key step in the denuclearization process.
That would trigger an announcement by the Bush administration that it intends to lift two politically symbolic groups of sanctions against Pyongyang. Bush has the power to immediately exempt North Korea from sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act, a World War I-era law that currently limits only trade with Cuba and North Korea. The White House also would notify Congress that it intends to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorism.
"It could be quite soon if that were to happen," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "Remember, this was action for action and it was something that was laid out quite a while ago. But I just caution you that we just don't know if they're actually going to do it."
It would be a remarkable turnabout in U.S. treatment toward a nation that President Bush once branded part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The United States is wary of North Korea's intentions because of its history of secrecy and broken promises.
The U.S. action would close one phase of a step-by-step disarmament plan with Pyongyang and clear the way for the Bush administration's highest-ever diplomatic engagement with North Korea. That would be a meeting attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her North Korean counterpart, possibly as soon as next month.
From there, the North is obligated to continue working to shut down and dismantle its plutonium reactor complex while the United States and other partners reward the North with further economic incentives.
"We are, we hope, now in the cusp of getting a declaration that will provide much greater clarity on the various aspects of their nuclear program," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Wednesday. He added that the U.S. assumes nothing and will check everything as the process goes ahead.
"All this has come at a relatively modest cost, if you will, because this is a process of actions for actions."
The United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia have been negotiating with North Korea to give up its nuclear program. North Korea missed an end-of-2007 deadline to turn over a full inventory of its programs and a description of its spread of nuclear technology to others.
Japan has argued that any U.S. decision to remove North Korea from a list of terrorist nations should be linked to progress in solving North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 80s.
Bush on Wednesday called Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and told the Japanese premier that he understands Tokyo's concern about Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea. Japan's foreign ministry said in a statement that Bush said he "would not forget the abduction issue."
Perino would not elaborate on the two leaders' phone call. "The abductee issue is something the president has spoken about regularly," she said.
North Korea was placed on the list for its alleged involvement in the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 115 people. The designation effectively blocks North Korea from receiving low-interest loans from the World Bank and other international lending agencies.