SEOUL, South Korea President Bush said Wednesday that North Korea has much to do before the U.S. can remove it from the terror blacklist, but he raised hope that its pariah status as a member of the "axis of evil" could someday be a thing of the past.
Pyongyang expects Bush to remove it from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring countries as soon as next weekend, as promised when the North blew up its nuclear reactor cooling tower in June. Bush, speaking at a news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, said North Korea must first agree to international terms for verifying its dismantlement efforts.
"I don't know whether or not they're going to give up their weapons," Bush said. "I really don't know. I don't think either of us knows."
Lee called North Korea "a very difficult opponent."
But, he added, "I will be patient and I will be consistent. I have faith we will be able to move to the verification process, then to the next step."
Bush once branded North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," along with prewar Iraq and Iran, and spoke derisively of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The president said it is still "to be determined" whether Pyongyang can come off, and ticked off some of what is left to do.
The North, which exploded a nuclear device in 2006, is believed by experts to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 10 nuclear bombs, and the U.S. has accused Pyongyang of running a second weapons program based on uranium. Actual destruction of weapons the ultimate goal of six-party talks with North Korea is months away at the least.
"The human rights abuses inside the country still exist and persist. The North Korea leader has yet to fully verify the extent to which he has had a highly enriched uranium program. There's still more steps to be done on the plutonium program," Bush said. "In order to get off the list, the axis of evil list, the North Korean leader is going to have to make certain decisions."
Still, he said he hoped to see all that come to pass.
"My hope is that the axis of evil list no longer exists. That's my hope for the sake of peace. That's my hope for the sake of our children," Bush said.
Earlier in the day, President Bush brushed off raucous demonstrators in South Korea as he opened his three-nation visit to Asia, saying it's a sign of citizens living in a country where they are free to speak their minds.
The dueling demonstrations by flag-waving supporters and rowdy protesters doused by police water cannons reflected sharp political divisions in the U.S.-South Korean relationship, which has endured volatile moments this year, but is still reliable and vital for both sides.