Bush seeks to tamp down revolt on North Korea deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House tried to convince conservatives, including a top aide, on Thursday that a breakthrough deal with North Korea would not free Pyongyang from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism anytime soon.

President George W. Bush talked to Chinese President Hu Jintao about the aid-for-arms deal in a phone call, a day after similar conversations with the leaders of Japan and South Korea.

“President Bush told President Hu that it was now up to the leader of North Korea to live up to the commitments made in order to create a better life for the North Korean people,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

Bush also “emphasized the continued need for nations to fully implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718,” Johndroe said, referring to a U.N. measure that imposed limited sanctions on Pyongyang after its nuclear test in October.

The deal hammered out in Beijing on Tuesday requires the secretive communist state to close its Yongbyon reactor, which is at the heart of its nuclear program, within 60 days in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel oil or equivalent aid.

The agreement has its skeptics in the United States because Pyongyang does not have to immediately dismantle its nuclear program and surrender the atomic weapons it already possesses.

Some conservatives have complained about a section of the agreement between North Korea and five negotiating partners, the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, that says the United States will begin the process of removing North Korea from the list of states Washington believes are sponsoring terrorism.

Among those questioning the deal was Elliott Abrams, the top Middle East expert at the National Security Council, who The Washington Post said fired off e-mails to Asia experts in the Council asking questions about the agreement.

“The de-listing is not a political deal,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow. “The North Koreans don’t get it for free; they’ve got to earn it, like everything else. If you take a look at the way this agreement is put together, it is all based on actions, and not mere promises.”

“If the North Koreans don’t deliver on their promises, they don’t get the kind of aid and support that they want and that the agreement ultimately envisions,” Snow said.

Snow said Abrams has had his questions about the deal answered satisfactorily and that he now supports it.

“I can say that without reservation,” Snow said.

John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has complained bitterly about the agreement, saying the deal rewarded North Korea by relieving financial pressure on it for only partially dismantling its nuclear program.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Bush said he strongly disagreed with Bolton’s assessment.

Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick