SEOUL — The United States is close to removing North Korea from its terrorism blacklist in the hope of saving a crumbling nuclear disarmament deal, according to reports from several countries Friday.
They said Washington, which sent its chief negotiator Christopher Hill to Pyongyang last week, is nearing agreement with the hardline communist state on “verification” inspection procedures for its nuclear plants.
But Japan objected, saying the North did not deserve an immediate removal from the list and citing Pyongyang’s decision to bar U.N. inspectors from its Yongbyon nuclear complex.
“Several sources said they had been told the delisting would take place as soon as today (Friday) based on North Korea’s willingness to show cooperation on the verification plan,” The Washington Post reported.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said both sides have virtually reached an agreement that the North will resume disabling its Yongbyon atomic complex in return for being taken off the list.
Yongbyon was shut down in July last year under an aid-for-disarmament deal agreed by the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, China and Japan after the North staged its first nuclear weapons test in October 2006.
Washington insists on an agreement on procedures to verify the disarmament process before it can drop the North from the terror list, which blocks some bilateral and multilateral aid.
However Pyongyang, angered at the delay, is preparing to restart Yongbyon, which made the plutonium for nuclear bombs.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan said that the United States is expected to decide soon whether to drop the North from its blacklist, but no final deal on “verification” inspections had yet been reached.
He confirmed verification would at present cover only the North’s admitted plutonium bomb-making program, and not a suspected secret enriched uranium program — a decision likely to anger U.S. hardliners.
Dong-A Ilbo said there were still differences on verification but that the United States would go ahead with delisting and continue with negotiations.
Japan’s Kyodo News said delisting would come by the end of this month.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told AFP that no decision had been made yet.
Japan, for its part, said the North did not deserve immediate removal.
“We are not in a situation where we can see an immediate removal from the list of sponsor countries of terrorism,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told a news conference.
“We are telling the United States that there are more points to confirm,” the government spokesman said, pointing to Pyongyang’s move barring UN atomic inspectors from all the Yongbyon plants.
South Korea’s Yu said verification would cover only the programme which the North declared in June to China, which has hosted the six-nation talks.
“Negotiations have always been underway with an assumption that verification will be carried out on reported facilities first,” he said.
“The issues of the UEP (uranium enrichment programme) and others like waste sites will be handled afterwards as we cannot deal with all the issues at the same time.”
Pyongyang’s tough stance comes amid reports that its reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke from which he is recovering, although it is unclear if the developments are connected.
The North was Friday marking the anniversary of its ruling communist party. Official media made no mention of any appearance by Kim, 66.
Tension has also risen with South Korea. The North’s navy Thursday accused its Seoul counterpart of encroaching into northern waters, and bluntly warned that clashes could break out.
Earlier this week the North test-fired short-range missiles in the Yellow Sea, and South Korean media reports say it is readying 10 more missiles for a possible multiple test.
The U.S. State Department urged Pyongyang “to avoid any steps that increase tension on the peninsula.”