YONGBYON, North Korea – North Korea destroyed the most visible symbol of its nuclear weapons program Friday, blasting apart the cooling tower at its main atomic reactor in a sign of its commitment to stop making plutonium for atomic bombs.
An explosion at the base of the cylindrical structure sent the tower collapsing into debris and dust that sent gray and white clouds billowing into blue skies at 5:10 p.m. local time as journalists and diplomats looked on, according to footage filmed at the site by international video news agency Associated Press Television News.
"This is a very important step in the disablement process and I think it puts us in a good position to move into the next phase," said Sung Kim, the U.S. State Department's top expert on the Koreas who attended the demolition.
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After the tower's tumble to the ground, Kim shook hands with Ri Yong Ho, director of safeguards at North Korea's Academy of Atomic Energy Research, who was the most senior Pyongyang official present.
"The demolition of the cooling tower is proof that the six-party talks have proceeded a step further," Ri said, referring to the nuclear negotiations.
The tower destruction was not mentioned by the North's media or shown on state TV broadcasts.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that North Korea had agreed to principles for verifying its declaration.
"The have agreed that every question that we have about their nuclear program — plutonium, uranium, proliferation — is something they have to answer," he said. "That would mean, if there is any place we want to visit, we should be allowed to visit, any person we want to talk to, we should be allowed to."
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In the North Korean government's first reaction to the developments this week, North Korea's Foreign Ministry welcomed Washington's decision to take the country off the U.S. trade and sanctions blacklists.
"The U.S. measure should lead to a complete and all-out withdrawal of its hostile policy toward (the North) so that the denuclearization process can proceed smoothly," the ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The symbolic tower explosion came just 20 months after Pyongyang shocked the world by detonating a nuclear bomb in an underground test to confirm its status as an atomic power. The nuclear blast spurred an about-face in the U.S. hard-line policy against Pyongyang, leading to the North's first steps to scale back its nuclear weapons development since the reactor became operational in 1986.
Last year, the North switched off the reactor at Yongbyon, some 60 miles north of the capital of Pyongyang, and it already has begun disabling the facility under the watch of U.S. experts so that it cannot easily be restarted.
The destruction of the cooling tower, which carries off waste heat to the atmosphere, is another step forward but not the most technically significant, because it is a simple piece of equipment that would be easy to rebuild.
Still, the demolition offers the most photogenic moment yet in the disarmament negotiations that have dragged on for more than five years and suffered repeated deadlocks and delays.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the tower's destruction would mark a step toward disablement, something that has been ongoing for many months to prevent the North from making more plutonium for bombs.
"It is important to get North Korea out of the plutonium business, but that will not be the end of the story," she said in Kyoto, Japan, on the sidelines of a meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.
North Korea's nuclear declaration, which was delivered six months later than the country promised and has not yet been released publicly, is said to only give the overall figure for how much plutonium was produced at Yongbyon — but no details of bombs that may have been made.
Experts believe the North has produced up to 110 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for as many as 10 nuclear bombs.
The declaration was being distributed Friday by China, the chair of the arms talks, to the other countries involved, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill said.
"We'll have to study it very carefully and then we'll have to work on verification," Hill said in Kyoto.
The declaration does not address the North's alleged uranium enrichment program or suspicions of its nuclear proliferation to other countries, such as Syria.