BEIJING (AFP) — North Korea handed over details of its nuclear programmes Thursday, paving the way for its removal from the US terrorism blacklist amid years of efforts to persuade the North to abandon the atom bomb.
Six months behind schedule, officials delivered the dossier to China -- the host country for the six-nation talks since 2003 that have worked to entice the North to exchange nuclear weapons for aid and diplomatic concessions.
The declaration of the secretive nation's nuclear materials, facilities and programmes was not expected to include a list of its actual atomic weapons, which would come in a later phase of the complex negotiations.
But the provision of the other information -- which will face a rigorous verification programme -- marks a key step in efforts to get the North to give up its nuclear weapons, which it has said it needs to deter a US attack.
US President George W. Bush, who in 2002 included North Korea in his self-styled "axis of evil," hailed the declaration as "a positive step forward" and announced immediate steps to ease sanctions -- but warned Pyongyang to fully give up its atomic ambitions.
"The United States has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang," he said in the White House Rose Garden.
"There's more work to be done and we've got the process in place to get it done in a verifiable way," he said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon hailed North Korea's declaration as a "very encouraging development" which could lead to further progress towards a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
North Korea's move "followed by the reciprocal actions of the United States are important steps forward," he added.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Washington would begin work in 45 days to remove the US blacklisting of North Korea.
Quid-pro-quo deals have been at the heart of often difficult negotiations with the North, which has several times gone back on commitments since the talks began, most notably when it tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006.
The six countries in the talks -- North and South Korea , Russia, Japan, the United States and China -- will now establish a mechanism to verify that the North has fully come clean on its nuclear programmes.
China's foreign ministry announced the much-anticipated dossier was turned over by the North Korean ambassador, Choe Jin Su.
The US State Department said North Korea handed China "a package" of nuclear declarations that includes uranium enrichment and proliferation activities.
North Korea, deeply suspicious of the outside world, wants security guarantees as part of the disarmament deal.
It is not known how many nuclear weapons the North may have produced. The US-based Institute for Science and International Security estimated last year that the country had separated enough plutonium for up to 12 nuclear weapons.
There have been repeated disputes about the extent of the nuclear programmes in the North and whether it will make a full and complete declaration.
Pyongyang has also repeatedly denied US claims that it has a programme to develop highly enriched uranium and of helping Syria build a suspect nuclear site that Israel destroyed in September. Syria has denied the charge.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Japan, said the move was "a good step forward," but Washington remained concerned about the North's alleged uranium enrichment and proliferation.
Rice also said Pyongyang must grant access to its Yongbyon plutonium reactor core and its radioactive nuclear waste.
At the end of the North's denuclearisation process, all nuclear weapons and fissile material are expected to be handed over in return for establishing diplomatic ties with the United States and Japan, as well as a formal peace agreement.
Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told AFP in Seoul that there would still be "a long way to go" even if Pyongyang satisfactorily declared all its nuclear facilities and programmes.
He said any eventual disarmament would take "years and not months."
The North's declaration was reportedly to announce a 37-kilogram (81-pound) plutonium stockpile -- less than the 40 to 50 kilos that US intelligence officials have estimated it has.
North Korea plans to blow up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in front of a worldwide TV audience on Friday as a symbol of its commitment to the process.
The United States put North Korea on its state terror list in 1988 after its agents were found to have bombed a South Korean airliner the previous year, killing all 115 people on board.
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