Bush says North Korea still "axis of evil" member

SEOUL (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Wednesday that North Korea remained -- for now -- part of what he once branded an “axis of evil”, but hoped the list would some day be empty.

President George W. Bush arrives at a military airport in Seongnam, south of Seoul August 5, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Sang-hak/Yonhap

Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress, accused Pyongyang, Iran and Iraq of seeking weapons of mass destruction that could be used for attacks on U.S. allies or to blackmail the United States.

But recent steps by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons, including declaring nuclear program details and blowing up a water cooling tower at its ageing Yongbyon plant, had raised questions whether it might be removed from the list.

“That’s to be determined. The human rights abuses inside the country still exist and persist,” Bush said after meeting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

“The North Korean leader has yet to fully verify the extent to which he has had a highly enriched uranium program.”

“In order to get off the list, the ‘axis of evil’ list, then the North Korean leader is going to have to make certain decisions,” he said.

“I can’t predict the North Korean leader’s decision making.”

Bush praised the demolition of the cooling tower as a “positive step”.

He has already proposed dropping North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as next week if Pyongyang agrees to a plan for verifying details about its nuclear weapons program. But most experts expect that will take longer.

Critics said the label was inaccurate and confrontational when he should have focused more on diplomacy. The White House has said Bush did pursue diplomatic means to avoid the Iraq war.

Iraq was effectively dropped from the list after the United States led a coalition of forces to oust Saddam Hussein. However, no nuclear weapons were found in Iraq despite Bush administration pronouncements Baghdad had a program to develop them.

Iran remains atop the “axis of evil” roster because of a stalemate over halting its uranium enrichment program. Washington worries Iran wants an atomic weapon but Tehran insists it is only seeking civilian nuclear energy.

“My hope is that the ‘axis of evil’ list no longer exists,” Bush said. “That’s my hope for the sake of peace. It’s my hope for the sake of our children.”

Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Jerry Norton