As a symbol of its commitment to talks on ending its nuclear programme, North Korea has demolished the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. To witness the tower being blown up, international television crews had been invited.
The move comes a day after the isolated state handed over long-awaited details of its programme, but still no account of the weapons many fear it has stockpiled.
The US has agreed to lift some of its economic sanctions in return.
Regarding the move on sanctions from the US as a “positive step”, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry has welcomed it, reported state media.
16 months ago, in return for aid and diplomatic concessions, the North agreed to scrap its nuclear ambitions. As part of a six-party agreement reached then,the Yongbyon reactor was shut in July last year.
Though the destruction of the tower is not a huge step forward in itself, it is still being seen as an important gesture, say analysts.
“It was a significant and very important step”, said US state department official Sung Kim, who witnessed the event.
“As I saw it, it was a complete demolition.”
In August, only if North Korea’s nuclear declarations are verified, the US will begin the process of removing the state from its list of terrorist sponsors. The US will also scrap sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
“We assess this as a positive step and welcome it”, a foreign ministry spokesman told the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
The reactor, 96 km north of Pyongyang, produced plutonium for the North’s nuclear weapons test in 2006.
Blowing up the cooling tower meant that it would take North Korea about a year to revive its plutonium production, and if it was doing so, it would be obvious, said the BBC’s world affairs correspondent.
“Bigger hurdles remain”, he added, talking about the critical issue of actual weapons stockpiles, as well as suspected North Korean proliferation activities, particularly the supposed Syrian connection.
On Friday, South Korea said it hoped that, next month, a new round of six-party talks could begin, also including North Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the US.
Omissions in the dossier
In the same time, the negotiating team has been poring over Pyongyang’s 60-page declaration, submitted on Thursday.
Six months overdue, the account is expected to cover the North’s plutonium production activities.
But any tally of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, any mention of a suspected uranium enrichment programme or claims it helped Syria build a nuclear facility, all denied by Pyongyang, are omitted in the dossier.
Moves to take the North off the US terror list would not begin for 45 days, and only if its nuclear declaration was verified, has emphasised president Bush.
“Shameful” and the “final collapse of Bush’s foreign policy”, is what John Bolton, former US envoy to the UN, labelled the US president’s decision.