WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States plans to announce on Saturday that it will take North Korea off its terrorism blacklist in a bid to salvage denuclearization talks, a U.S. official familiar with the decision said.
The official, who asked not to be named as the announcement is set to be made later in the day, said Pyongyang had provided assurances on verifying its nuclear activities and President George W. Bush decided to proceed with taking the North off the U.S. list of states considered sponsors of terrorism.
The move, which will be unpopular with some conservative Republicans who see the United States as giving in to North Korea, follows days of deliberations within the administration after a visit by U.S. envoy Chris Hill to Pyongyang last week.
The U.S. official said Hill had brought back a draft of assurances on verification, including some key elements that the North Koreans had not engaged in earlier. He did not provide further details of those assurances.
“Right up to the president it was decided to proceed,” said the official of removing the North from the list.
South Korean foreign ministry officials were not immediately available to comment on the removal of North Korea from the terrorism list, which also includes Syria, Sudan, Iran and Cuba and imposes a range of sanctions.
South Korea’s foreign minister had previously said the United States and North Korea had shown flexibility and Seoul was hoping that a deal could be reached on verification.
The drive to revive the deal comes as secretive and impoverished North Korea has stepped up efforts to rebuild its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and banned U.N. monitors from the Soviet-era plant — moves Washington say must be reversed.
If the North did not fulfill its verification promises, the United States had prepared some measures against them, said the official, who declined to provide further details of any potential punitive actions.
The U.S. official said an announcement was expected within a day or so that North Korea had resumed its nuclear disablement, that it would invite foreign teams to stay and would support what had been agreed on in earlier six-nation negotiations.
Under a broad accord struck in 2005 between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, Pyongyang agreed to abandon all nuclear programs in exchange for potential economic and diplomatic benefits.
Under a subsequent pact, the United States suggested it would remove North Korea from the terrorism list in exchange for Pyongyang providing a “complete and correct” declaration of all of its nuclear programs.
That deal had become snagged by North Korea’s reluctance to accept a mechanism allowing the United States or other members of the talks to verify its declaration.
North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006 using plutonium and it is suspected of pursuing a uranium enrichment program, which would provide a second path to make fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Taking Pyongyang off the list had also been held up by Tokyo’s objections to delisting North Korea until the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals decades ago by North Korean agents is settled.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to Japan’s foreign minister, who had voiced strong misgivings about any plans to remove North Korea from the list until the abductions issue was resolved.