National Security

Breakthrough expected Thursday in North Korea talks

WASHINGTON — North Korea on Thursday will provide a long-awaited declaration detailing its nuclear weapons programs, a potential breakthrough in a 17-year-long effort to rid the Stalinist state of nuclear arms, U.S. officials said.

North Korea's tally of its weapons work, which initially will be delivered to China, the chair of the six-nation nuclear talks, will trigger a rapid series of events in the normally slow-moving diplomacy that eventually could lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the isolated communist nation.

Also on Thursday, President Bush is expected to announce that he intends to remove North Korea from the U.S. government's list of nations that sponsor terrorism and waive it from the provisions of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which bars almost all commerce.

As early as Friday, North Korea plans to demolish the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, with the head of the State Department's Korea desk, Sung Kim, on hand to witness. Pyongyang also has invited foreign television stations to videotape the event, said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

If all goes as planned, the moves will mark the most significant easing of the tensions between North Korea and the United States and other nations in six decades — and a rare foreign policy advance for the Bush administration.

They're a major step in implementing a series of agreements in which North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear arms in return for economic, security and political rewards.

But the diplomacy faces significant skepticism in Congress, from presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain and from Japan, America's closest Northeast Asian ally.

It remains uncertain whether impoverished, isolated North Korea will ever give up its suspected arsenal of a half-dozen or so nuclear devices, which it's not required to do at this stage.

In an effort to preempt criticism, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week said that most sanctions on North Korea would remain in place.

"It may very well be the case (that) North Korea does not want to give up its nuclear weapons and its programs. That is a very real possibility," Rice said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "But we and our partners should test it."

Rice emphasized that the United States has given North Korea relatively little aid so far — 134,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and the release of $25 million in regime funds that had been frozen in a Macau bank.

While the Trading With the Enemy Act will no longer apply to North Korea, she said, "Just about every restriction that might be lifted will be, in fact, kept in place because of different U.S. laws and regulations."

North Korea will still be under U.N. sanctions that were imposed after its October 2006 nuclear test and under U.S. sanctions levied in response to human rights, proliferation and human trafficking concerns. Further, U.S. companies won't be able to get Export-Import Bank financing to do business there.

Bush's removal of North Korea from the terrorism list will take effect on August 11 unless Congress blocks it. The White House could reverse the step, Rice said, if North Korea's declaration of its nuclear programs and facilities proves incomplete, or if it impedes inspections to verify it.

"The signs are Congress will not oppose the coming agreement," said Larry Niksch, a veteran North Korea analyst at the Library of Congress.

The U.S. government says that North Korea hasn't sponsored a terrorist act in 21 years, since the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner. But its removal from the terrorism list is straining U.S. ties with Japan, which has urged Bush to wait until North Korea accounts for Japanese citizens who were abducted in the 1970s and '80s.

North Korea's declaration probably won't address allegations that it helped Syria build a nuclear reactor — which Israel bombed in September — or that it covertly pursued an alternate route to nuclear weapons involving highly enriched uranium.

The mystery over the North's uranium activities was heightened this weekend when The Washington Post reported that nearly 19,000 documents North Korea recently gave the United States on its plutonium weapons program were found to be contaminated with uranium particles.

Niksch said he doubted that North Korea would ever part with its nuclear arsenal.

But, he added, "This is, I really think, the end of the line for what the Bush administration will be able to accomplish" on the issue.

ON THE WEB

Rice's speech on Asia policy.

October 2007 Six-Party Agreement.

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