N. Korea Razes Cooling Tower In Show of Nuclear Accord

North Korea destroyed the most visible symbol of its nuclear weapons program Friday, according to a news report, a sign of its commitment to stop making plutonium for atomic bombs. Video by AP
By Blaine Harden and Stella Kim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 28, 2008

KYOTO, Japan, June 27 -- North Korea dynamited the dirty gray cooling tower at its deactivated Yongbyon nuclear facility on Friday, a made-for-TV event intended to show the United States and the world that it is serious about abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

After a loud explosion, the 60-foot tower imploded within seconds, melting into a thick white cloud of smoke and dust. The late-afternoon demolition was recorded by television news crews invited from the five countries that for years have been pressing Kim Jong Il's totalitarian state to back away from nuclear confrontation.

The tower was the most visible part of a plant that manufactured the plutonium used in the nuclear device North Korea exploded in the fall of 2006. The test explosion frightened the world and prompted the Bush administration to rethink its refusal to negotiate directly with Kim's government.

The slow, fitful and often-frustrating negotiations that have taken place since that explosion produced high-visibility results this week, with the cooling tower's destruction a day after the North Koreans handed over a declaration of details of their nuclear program.

That document has not been made public. But Charles D. Ferguson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department expert on nuclear safety, said that in it, North Korea declares that it produced about 81 pounds of plutonium. "You could use that to make probably about a half-dozen nuclear bombs," he told reporters Friday.

A senior U.S. official said this week in Kyoto that the State Department believes North Korea may have produced up to 110 pounds of plutonium. But the official added that the North now has agreed to a verification process, including on-site inspection, that should allow experts to determine precisely how much plutonium was made. The next stage will include collecting plutonium -- perhaps removing it from existing weapons -- and taking it out of North Korea, the official said.

Talks to work out ways to verify what is in the document are to begin soon in Beijing, attended by diplomats from the United States, North and South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

After the communist state handed over the paper on Thursday, President Bush moved immediately to drop North Korea from a list of countries officially designated as sponsors of terrorism and to lift some trade sanctions. Many others remain in force.

North Korea, in its first reaction to the U.S. moves, said Friday that it welcomes them. "The U.S. measure should lead to a complete and all-out withdrawal of its hostile policy" toward North Korea "so that the denuclearization process can proceed smoothly," the ministry said in a statement published by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Destruction of the cooling tower was more than a symbolic gesture, U.S. officials said, noting that the demolition would make it harder for the North Koreans to revive their nuclear program.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking Friday in Kyoto, where she was attending a meeting of foreign ministers from Group of Eight industrialized countries, said much work remains ahead. Concerns include that the North sold nuclear technology and tried to enrich uranium, as well as its human rights record, she said.

The idea of destroying the cooling tower in a televised event emerged last year during talks between North and South Korea and the United States, according to Song Min-soon, who then was the lead South Korean negotiator and is now a legislator from the opposition United Democratic Party.

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