Yongbyon cooling tower demolished

30 June 2008

North Korea has made a declaration on its nuclear activities and demolished a cooling tower. The USA has made political concessions in return, but remains guarded on the future of the long-running process.


An exchange of steps between the USA and North Korea began on 26 June when North Korean negotiators passed a document listing its nuclear activities to their counterparts in China. Although the document is seen as incomplete, the 'action-for-action' nature of the Six Parties' agreement required the USA to lift some of the provisions of its Trading With The Enemy Act and start the 45-day process on removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.


President George Bush announced those measures in the White House Rose Garden explaining: "The USA has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang. We remain deeply concerned about North Korea's human rights abuses, uranium enrichment activities, nuclear testing and proliferation, ballistic missile programs, and the threat it continues to pose to South Korea and its neighbours."


In response to the Amercian move, Pyongyang went ahead with the demolition of a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear weapons complex. The 5 MW reactor at the site had been used to produce tens of kilograms of plutonium, some of which was used in what seems to have been a partially successful weapons test in October 2006.


The cooling tower was not a nuclear component but its public destruction served as a powerful symbol of progress in the 'denuclearization' the Korean peninsula.


Yongbyon (PA) 
Invited reporters prepare for the final moments of the Yongbyon cooling tower (Image: Gao Haorong/AP/PA Photos)


A landmark agreement in February 2007 saw North Korea agree to close its nuclear weapons facilities forever and destroy its existing weapons. The deal breathed new life into a long-running and extremely difficult diplomatic process involving the Six Parties (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the USA).


It was verified in July 2007 that the Yongbyon reactor had been shut down, along with a used nuclear fuel reprocessing plant and a fuel fabrication plant at the same site. In addition, construction was halted on a 50 MW reactor at Yongbyon and a 200 MW unit at Taechon. The USA said that eight of 11 disablement projects had been completed.


The Yongbyon reactor could not be restarted without a new cooling tower, the construction of which would be easily visible via satellite.


Going, going, gone?


North Korea's documentation is now to be examined at length by experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the other members of the Six Parties ahead of a new round of talks.


The document of about 60 pages is said to place a low figure on North Korea's stockpile of plutonium and omit details of any nuclear weapons and their manufacturing facilities. It also omits information about the uranium enrichment program that the USA alleges. Another key concern left unaddressed is proliferation activity, in particular North Korea's involvement in Syria, where a suspected plutonium production reactor similar to the one at Yongbyon was destroyed by Israeli jets in September 2007.


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in the Wall Street Journal that she would not accept North Korea's statements "on faith," but would insist of verification and would reconcile the new document with the 19,000 pages of Yongbyon production records already in US possession. She also mentioned that 134,000 tonnes of the 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil it has been promised had already been sent to North Korea.


Bush noted that the latest American actions would have "little impact on North Korea's financial and diplomatic isolation," adding that "North Korea will remain one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world." Rice's editorial had said: "What if North Korea cheats? We will re-impose any applicable sanctions that we have waived - plus add new ones."