BEIJING – North Korea handed over a long-awaited accounting of its nuclear work to Chinese officials on Thursday, fulfilling a key step in the denuclearization process.
The United States said it will lift key trade sanctions against North Korea and remove it from the U.S. terrorism blacklist, a remarkable turnaround in policy toward the communist regime that President Bush once branded as part of an "axis of evil."
The declaration breathes new life into stagnant talks with North Korea, which will now get economic and other aid for cooperation on dismantling its nuclear program.
On Friday, it is expected to blow up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex in front of international television cameras.
Bush said the move was "a step closer in the right direction" although he made clear the United States remains suspicious about the communist regime in Pyongyang.
"The United States has no illusions about the regime," Bush said in a statement that he read to reporters in the Rose Garden.
The U.S. is fulfilling its promise to erase trade sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act, and notify Congress that in 45 days it intends to take North Korea off the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism, White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
"The United States welcomes the North Korean declaration of its nuclear programs," she said.
"North Korea has pledged to disable all its nuclear facilities and tomorrow will destroy the cooling tower of the Yongbyon reactor," she said. "North Korea also pledged to declare its nuclear activities. This information will be essential to verifying that North Korea is ending all of its nuclear programs and activities."
The official Xinhua News Agency said the declaration was handed over Thursday to China, host of the six-party talks that also include South Korea, Russia and Japan.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier Thursday that any American actions in response to the declaration would be subject to verification of the North Korean documents.
"Obviously, the weapons and all the programs are going to have to be dealt with and dismantled if we are to have denuclearization and it's going to have to be done so verifiably," Rice told reporters in Kyoto, Japan, where she was attending a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations. She next travels to South Korea and China.
North Korea is not obligated to provide specific details of its actual nuclear weapons in the declaration — that will happen in the next stage of disarmament negotiations — but Rice said the documents would provide key information about their arsenal.
The declaration was expected to say how much plutonium North Korea has produced at its main reactor facility.
"If we can verifiably determine the amount of plutonium that has been made, we then have an upper hand in understanding what may have happened in terms of weaponization," Rice said.
The United States is wary of North Korea's intentions because of its history of secrecy and broken promises. In an opinion piece published in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, Rice said Washington was approaching the matter with deep skepticism.
"Any effort to denuclearize the Korean peninsula must contend with the fact that North Korea is the most secretive and opaque regime on the planet," she wrote. "We will not accept that statement on faith. We will insist on verification."
The U.S. actions will 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, a meeting that would be attended by Rice and her North Korean counterpart 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.
North Korea has invited foreign TV stations to broadcast the toppling of the cooling tower. Sung Kim, the top State Department expert on Korea, will travel to North Korea for the planned destruction of the cooling tower, an official at South Korea's Foreign Ministry said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing ministry policy.
The United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia have been negotiating with North Korea to give up its nuclear program for years. North Korea already 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.