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.
A largely symbolic move, if a powerful one.
UPDATE (Dave Schuler): From CNN:
The destruction of the highly visible symbol of North Korea’s long-secret nuclear program came just a day after the country released details of its program. “They fired a warning flare and then in three minutes the whole thing came tumbling down in a massive cloud of smoke,” Amanpour said. “There was a moment of stunned silence as the magnitude of what had happened sunk in,” Amanpour said.
U.S. State Department officials and observers from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) watched from a reviewing stand on a ridge about 1,000 yards away, she said. “This is a very significant disablement step,” the U.S. envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, said.
This is more than just symbolism. It’s a highly positive concrete step in the right direction.
Singularly important in this was the Chinese role in the negotiations. China has always been the 500-lb. gorilla in dealing with North Korea, their most important patron (some would say enabler), and the constructive role that China has played has largely been one of self-interest. The Chinese authorities don’t want North Korea to become a one-stop shopping center for terrorists or its supporters any more than we do. Additionally, North Korea’s presumed detonation of a nuclear weapon in October 2006 was seen as a slap in the face to China.
The developments in the negotiations with North Korea have been a rare instance of any American administration let alone the Bush Administration being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Indeed, some have suggested that progress by lower level diplomats was made possible because the guys at the top were preoccupied.
Although it’s demonstrable progress it’s only a baby step and we’ll need to keep our eyes on North Korea. Part of our apparent lack of ability to walk and chew gum at the same time mentioned above is that we’re inclined to take our eyes off the ball. The last time we did that with North Korea it did not turn out well.