(CNSNews.com) - The Bush administration's efforts to resolve the standoff over North Korea's nuclear programs face an uphill battle, as a key foreign ally and skeptical lawmakers voice concerns about elements of a recently announced agreement with the reclusive Asian state.
Japan appealed to the U.S. Thursday not to remove North Korea from a list of terror-sponsoring states -- one of the concessions demanded by Kim Jong-il -- until Pyongyang has settled, to Japan's satisfaction, a dispute over the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s.
Underlining how seriously Japan takes the issue, Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi said Tokyo hoped the U.S. would address it "in a manner that will not adversely affect Japan-U.S. relations."
Yachi discussed the matter during talks in Washington with Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.
Ahead of his visit, foreign ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi reiterated Japan's stance, telling a briefing that "any action, any decision on this, should in no way jeopardize the bilateral relationship between Japan and the United States."
Of five countries -- the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia -- involved in a lengthy "six-party" process of negotiating an end to North Korea's nuclear activities, Japan has consistently maintained the toughest stance towards Pyongyang, and earlier this month extended sanctions against the Stalinist regime for another six months.
A six-party agreement announced on October 3 requires North Korea to declare all of its nuclear programs and "disable" three key facilities by the end of the year.
In return, North Korea is promised fuel aid -- President Bush asked Congress Monday to approve $106 million for this purpose -- as well as diplomatic concessions, including removal from the terror list. The agreement does not specify sequencing of the various steps.
The State Department says Japan's concerns are being taken into account, but Japanese officials worry that the abduction issue -- a highly emotive one for many Japanese -- may be sidelined as denuclearization is prioritized and pursued.
The Oct. 3 agreement does not mention the abduction issue specifically, but it says that Japan and North Korea agree to "make sincere efforts to normalize their relations expeditiously ... on the basis of the settlement of the unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern."
North Korean security agencies kidnapped at least 17 Japanese citizens, apparently to train spies in the Japanese language and culture. Since Kim admitted 13 of the abductions in 2002, he has allowed five of the victims to return to Japan but says the others have died. Japan wants a full accounting and investigation, but North Korea says the matter is closed.
North Korea has been on the terror-sponsor list since 1988, the year after it bombed a South Korean airliner, killing 115 people. The U.S. opposes loans by the World Bank and other international financial institutions to blacklisted countries, and they are also subject to a ban on arms-related exports and sales, and on economic assistance.
Removal from the list has been a priority for North Korea for years.
Christopher Hill, the State Department's negotiator at the six-party talks, addressed Japan's concerns while testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday.
"'On every occasion that I've met with the North Koreans, I have personally raised the issue of abducted Japanese citizens," he told a hearing of two House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittees.
"'This is not just a matter for the Japanese. This is a matter for the entire international community to speak out clearly," he said.
Lawmakers from both parties voiced skepticism about the agreement, its cost to the U.S., and North Korea's willingness to abide by it.
Rep. Ed Royce of California, the ranking Republican on the terrorism, non-proliferation and trade subcommittee, said the deal was "vague" and contained no agreement on verification. North Korea's commitment to giving up its nuclear weapons was uncertain, he said.
Royce and several colleagues questioned Hill about suspicions that North Korea has been helping Syria to develop a nuclear program, citing reports of an Israeli air strike against a site in Syria last month.
Hill said he was not in a position to discuss intelligence matters. He did say, however, that "throughout the process we have made it clear we cannot accept any agreement that has us winking at proliferation issues."
The Oct. 3 agreement contains a pledge by North Korea "not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how."
Hill told the hearing that he believed by the end of the year, the U.S. would have clarity from the North Koreans on "the totality of their nuclear programs," including a suspected uranium-enrichment program.
Pyongyang to date denies the existence of any such program, admitting only to a plutonium-based one in Yongbyon, the location of the three facilities it has agreed to "disable" by Dec. 31.
The nuclear standoff erupted in 2002, when it emerged that North Korea had for years been cheating on an earlier agreement with the U.S. by running a covert uranium-enrichment program.
Under that earlier deal, negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994, North Korea had pledged to freeze its nuclear program in return for U.S. fuel aid and the provision by the U.S. and its allies of alternative, civilian reactors for power supply purposes.
One of the strongest critics of the 1994 agreement was John Bolton, the former top arms control official in the Bush administration who served as ambassador to the U.N. until last December.
Bolton in recent months has emerged as a leading critic of the new agreement.
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