The U.S. announced today it has removed North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list in return for Pyongyang’s acceptance of a Six Party Talks verification protocol. As always with North Korea, the devil will be in the details of the agreement and, more importantly, Pyongyang’s willingness to abide by its commitment. While there is increased hope for a satisfactory diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem, a final judgment must be withheld until a clearer picture emerges.

Preliminary indications of the outline appear generally positive and a U.S. official claimed that Washington received all that it asked for on verification. The State Department stated that all verification measures will apply not only to the plutonium-based nuclear weapons program but also the more contentious uranium-based nuclear program and North Korea’s proliferation activities. That said, Washington appears to have watered down its requirements for short-notice challenge inspections, allowing Pyongyang to obfuscate on suspect sites. Doing so would be a critical shortcoming in the agreement.

This would mark a surprising reversal by Pyongyang from its previous refusal to even acknowledge the existence of a uranium program or any proliferation activities. North Korea refused to include these issues in its flawed June 26 “complete and correct” data declaration.

It is puzzling that such a dramatic positive reversal occurred since President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Aso rejected the draft agreement just a few days ago. It is also uncertain why North Korea was engaged in escalatory behavior if it had already agreed to the agreement. During the past week, Pyongyang has issued harsh statements, threatened military action against South Korean naval forces, and may even be preparing for missile or nuclear tests.

Much needs to be revealed about the parameters of the agreement and it may not be as all-encompassing as Washington suggests. Moreover, Washington’s action on the terrorist list has further alienated key ally Japan, which had previously been promised stronger U.S. support on resolving its abductee concerns including a personal commitment by President Bush to then Prime Minister Koizumi. Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa criticized the U.S. removal pointing out that the abductee issue itself “is a matter of terrorism.”