SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea said Sunday it will resume dismantling its main nuclear facilities, hours after the U.S. removed the communist country from a list of states Washington says sponsor terrorism.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry said it will again allow inspections by the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency at its Yongbyon nuclear complex to verify the disablement process, pledged under a 2007 disarmament-for-aid deal with the U.S. and four other regional powers.
"We welcome the U.S. which has honored its commitment to delist [North Korea] as 'a state sponsor of terrorism,'" the ministry said in a statement carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea halted its nuclear disablement in mid-August in anger over what it called U.S. delays in removing it from the terror list. The country has since taken steps toward reassembling its plutonium-producing facility and barred international inspectors from the site.
The U.S. had said North Korea first had to allow verification of the declaration of its nuclear programs it submitted in June. On Saturday, the U.S. said it took the North off the terrorism blacklist because Pyongyang had agreed to all Washington's nuclear inspection demands.
U.S. officials said North Korea agreed to allow atomic experts to take samples and conduct forensic tests at all of its declared nuclear facilities and undeclared sites on mutual consent, and would permit them to verify that it has told the truth about transfers of nuclear technology and allegations it ran a separate secret uranium enrichment program.
Japan's Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, who was in the U.S. to discuss the global economic crisis, sharply criticized the decision Saturday saying it was "very regrettable" and that his country hadn't been fully consulted beforehand.
Japan has been at odds with Pyongyang over abductions of its citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
"This is very disappointing. I consider kidnapping to be terrorism," Nakagawa said, according to Japan's Kyodo News agency.
Following Nakagawa's comments, Japan's government took pains Sunday to show it was on board with the U.S. delisting.
"When the six-party talks continue to move forward, in the process of the various negotiations we will have ample opportunity to discuss the kidnappings. We have not lost any leverage at all," said Prime Minister Taro Aso, who assumed power last month.
The Foreign Ministry said President Bush telephoned Aso before the announcement to assure Aso he understood Japan's concerns over the kidnapping issue and was committed to its resolution.
U.S. officials said the North could again be placed on the blacklist if it doesn't comply with the inspections. The North also said Sunday that prospects for its disarmament depend on whether the U.S. delisting actually takes effect and the North receives remaining international oil shipments promised under the 2007 aid deal.
Under that agreement with the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, the North agreed to abandon its nuclear programs in return for the equivalent of 1 million tons of oil shipments and other benefits. North Korea said even though it had completed eight of 11 key disablement procedures, only half of the promised oil shipments had been delivered.
Analysts called the latest development important progress in resolving the nuclear tensions, but said it could still take many years to get Pyongyang to completely dismantle its nuclear programs.
"The terrorism delisting is just one step in getting the North to abandon its nuclear programs," said Kang Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University. "I think we'll face tiresome discussions" on how to proceed with the nuclear inspections.
The delisting decision has been in the works since chief U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill traveled to Pyongyang and met senior North Korean officials earlier this month. Hill has called the meeting "substantial," while the North's Sunday statement said it was "an in-depth beneficial discussion."
Earlier Sunday, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Kim Sook said his country welcomed the U.S. decision and the North's corresponding moves to resume disablement work. He told reporters those developments would put six-party talks back on track and lead North Korea to give up its nuclear programs.
Kim also said the nuclear talks — which last convened in July — would resume soon to finalize details of the international inspections. South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted U.S. State Department official Sung Kim as saying the discussions could take place this month.
China, which has played a key role as host of the six-party talks since 2003, had no immediate comment Sunday on the delisting, the country's Foreign Ministry said.