North Korea Destroys Tower at Nuclear Site



The demolition on Friday of the cooling tower at the reactor complex in Yongbyon, North Korea.


Published: June 28, 2008

SEOUL, South Korea—In a gesture demonstrating its commitment to halt its nuclear weapons program, North Korea blew up the most prominent symbol of its plutonium production Friday.

The 60-foot cooling tower at the North’s main nuclear power plant collapsed in a heap of shattered concrete and twisted steel, filmed by international and regional television broadcasters invited to witness the event.

The tower is a technically insignificant structure, relatively easy to rebuild. North Korea also has been disabling — but not destroying — more sensitive parts of the nuclear complex, such as the 5-megawatt reactor, a plant that makes its fuel and a laboratory that extracts plutonium from its spent fuel.

Nonetheless, the destruction of the tower, the most visible element of the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, affirmed the incremental progress that has been made in American-led multilateral efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

“As you all saw, the cooling tower is no longer there,” Sung Kim, a senior U.S. State Department official who witnessed the blast from a hill, told South Korean television. “It’s a very significant disablement step.”

But some experts in South Korea said the demolition, although dramatic, did not answer key questions, such as how many weapons North Korea has built or whether it has exported its nuclear technology to countries like Syria.

“It’s symbolic. But in real terms, whether demolishing or not a cooling tower that has already been disabled doesn’t make much difference,” said Lee Ji-sue, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Myongji University.

The demolition also shows that North Korea has concluded that the Yongbyon complex, in service for several decades, has served its purpose after producing an unknown number of nuclear weapons, Mr. Lee said.

U.S. officials have accused North Korea of hiding an uranium-enrichment program, a charge that the North’s declaration on Thursday failed to address.

On Thursday, North Korea submitted its first significant — although partial — account of its arms programs. Almost simultaneously, President Bush announced that Washington was removing North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and issued a proclamation lifting some sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

The Yongbyon complex, built around a Soviet-era nuclear reactor, is the North’s only known source of plutonium. North Korea had started disabling the reactor and other parts of the complex last year under an agreement with the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

Under the deal, North Korea has been receiving fuel aid from the five nations. But it was not obliged to destroy any of its nuclear facilities until further talks determine what rewards it will get in return.

South Korean and U.S. officials welcomed the early demolition of the cooling tower as an encouraging sign of North Korea’s commitment to a broader deal under which Washington hopes to eradicate all the North’s nuclear assets.

“By demolishing the tower, North Korea appears to demonstrate that it would not produce any more plutonium,” said Kim Yeon-chul, a North Korea expert at the Asiatic Research Center at Korea University in Seoul.

The cooling tower carries waste heat from the reactor. While the Communist government kept its nuclear activities shrouded in secrecy, steam curling from the tower into the atmosphere was captured in spy satellite photographs, providing outside observers with the most visible sign of operations at Yongbyon.

The photographs reminded the rest of the world of the operation’s dangers. North Korea shocked the world in October 2006 by detonating a nuclear bomb in an underground test. It is also suspected by U.S. officials of providing nuclear technology to countries like Syria.