By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008
North Korea has agreed to blow up the cooling tower attached to its Yongbyon nuclear facility within 24 hours of being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, diplomats said this week.
The destruction of the cooling tower is intended by U.S. officials to be a striking visual, broadcast around the globe, that would offer tangible evidence that North Korea was retreating from its nuclear ambitions. Wisps of vapor from the cooling tower appear in most satellite photographs of Yongbyon, making it the facility's most recognizable feature, though experts say its destruction would be mostly symbolic.
North Korean officials had privately indicated previously they would destroy the tower as part of the disablement of Yongbyon. During talks last week with a top U.S. State Department official, Sung Kim, North Korea reaffirmed it would act quickly after Pyongyang is removed from the terrorism list.
During the talks, North Korean officials also tentatively agreed to release to U.S. officials thousands of pages of documents, dating back to 1990, concerning the daily production records of the facility. The records are intended to help U.S. experts determine how much plutonium was produced at the facility and thus verify North Korean claims.
North Korea has indicated it produced more than 30 kilograms of plutonium, but Pyongyang does not count waste or material that collects in the facility's pipes, making it difficult to compare it with U.S. intelligence estimates of about 50 kilograms.
The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment "on ongoing negotiations," he said.
Several months ago, North Korean technicians broke through the concrete bottom of the tower, making it unusable, but hot water could still be dumped directly in a nearby river if North Korea were unconcerned about possible ecological damage. Other aspects of the disabling of the facility are more significant; U.S. officials say they think that North Korea would need to order months of repairs if it wanted to restart it.
Under a tentative deal struck between Washington and Pyongyang, North Korea will be removed from the terrorism list and from a second sanction -- the Trading With the Enemy Act -- once it produces a declaration of its nuclear activities. U.S. officials have especially been focused on the plutonium segment of the declaration, telling Pyongyang that it need only "acknowledge" U.S. evidence and concerns about two other issues: its nuclear dealings with Syria and a suspected uranium-enrichment program.
U.S. officials have argued that those two issues are considered of secondary, historical interest, in contrast to the more urgent matter of the plutonium stash. North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006 and is known to possess enough plutonium to make several more nuclear bombs.
North Korea is one of five countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which makes it subject to severe U.S. export controls, particularly of dual-use technology and military equipment. Those controls prohibit much foreign aid and obligate the United States to oppose financial assistance to the country from institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.