North Korea blows up tower at nuclear site – but questions remain about its program

The North's actions set the stage for another round in six-party talks, scheduled to take place next week in Beijing.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The flash and bang of the explosion of the cooling tower at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex provided a theatrical coda to a week in which the isolated nation partially declared its nuclear efforts and the United States, in response, took initial steps to remove the North from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The squat 60-foot tower, the most visible symbol of the complex where North Korea has been producing weapons-grade plutonium, was toppled in an event documented by networks from each of the countries participating in six-nation talks with the North. CNN, Japan's NHK network, South Korea's Munhwa Broadcasting Corp., and Chinese and Russian national networks were to have broadcast the explosion live – but videotaped shots of the tower tumbling in a cloud of smoke were shown several hours later.

South Korea's ruling Grand National Party and the opposition United Democratic Party agreed on the significance of the declaration. A spokesman for the conservative GNP called the declaration and demolition together "a historic day," while a spokesman for the liberal opposition called these events "a step on the road to peace.

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Despite the dramatic gesture, however, analysts here remain skeptical as to whether the measures will have much long-range impact on progress toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

"I am not impressed," says Kim Tae Woo, a senior fellow at the Korean Institute of Defense Analyses, affiliated with the Defense Ministry. "What the US is doing is for political effect. The declaration is becoming a political game. Both nations [the US and North Korea] are doing political negotiations."

North Korea "still has a minimal nuclear deterrent," says Mr. Kim. "North Korea will keep it to the last moment" – that is, after extracting a vast infusion of aid and concessions beyond removal from the US list of nations sponsoring terrorism and removal of US economic sanctions as promised by President Bush.

"Destruction of the tower is a symbolic event," says Lim Dong Won, architect of South Korea's efforts at reconciliation with North Korea during the presidency of Kim Dae Jung, whose Sunshine policy set the pattern of a decade of dialog with North Korea before the election of the conservative Lee Myung Bak in December. "It provides a good picture."

Still, Mr. Lim, author of a new book on his role in bringing about dialog with North Korea, predicts that President Lee will back down from the hard-line policy that he set toward North Korea after his inauguration in February.

"Inter-Korean relations have been frozen," says Lim. "I hope this can be melted soon."

Lim predicts Mr. Lee "will come up with more realistic measures" in the aftermath of North Korea's delivery of a declaration of its activities at Yongbyon, where North Korea has fabricated at least six nuclear warheads in recent years. "Shutting down the nuclear facilities has been finished," he says.

The declaration, Lim notes, sets the stage for another round of six-party talks coming up next week in Beijing at which negotiators will move to "the next step for dismantling the nuclear facilities."

At the same time, he believes that American and North Korean negotiators have already "decided to negotiate secretly and separately from the declaration" the issues of North Korea's program for developing nuclear warheads with enriched uranium and proliferation elsewhere, including the site in Syria that was bombed by Israeli planes last September.

But among Koreans there is a tendency to dismiss the explosion of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon complex 60 miles north of Pyongyang as a distraction for international television networks, with attention focusing instead on the standoff between the government and dissidents challenging policemen blockading the main avenue to the Blue House complex of President Lee Myung Bak.

"They couldn't care less about North Korea," says Shim Jae Hoon, long-time analyst and commentator here. "No one is watching."

Protests continued Friday over a revised deal to import beef from the US. Korea's four other networks provided running commentary on the tower's destruction in between normal programming and video showing protesters in Seoul battling police in front of police buses lined up to stop them. [Editor's note: The original version cited the wrong number of Korean networks.]

Protesters in the downtown area persist in demanding President Lee's resignation in the eighth week of demonstrations provoked by the beef agreement. Protesters say a revised deal, which bars the import of beef from cattle more than 30 months old, represents a political compromise and are demanding reinstatement of the ban on beef imports imposed in late 2003 after discovery of mad cow disease in an American cow.

Hard-core activists have been intensifying their protest after the government formally legalized sale of US beef and customs officials began inspecting and approval for sale several thousand tons of imports already in cold storage.

The demonstrations have turned ugly, with protesters attacking a reporter for the conservative Chosun Ilbo, Korea's biggest paper. A row of police buses blockaded access to the paper while protesters gathered to denounce it for critical commentaries.

Although the numbers involved in demonstrations has declined markedly in recent days, several thousand protesters carry on nightly in the face of appeals from President Lee and Prime Minister Han Seung Soo to call off their crusade.

Video footage has shown scores of protesters pulling at ropes attached to police buses, attempting to move them out of the way, while police fired water cannon at them. The hulks of several burned-out buses litter the street, attesting to the ferocity of the nightly confrontations.

"It's not about the beef," says commentator Shim Jae Hoon. "Beef is just the cover issue. People out there feel they've been unfairly treated."

Demonstrators complain of a wide range of problems, most of them focusing on the elitist style of a government seen as favoring the chaebol, or conglomerates, that dominate the economy while ignoring the needs of middle- and working-class people increasingly concerned about jobs and income.

Mr. Shim notes the appointment by Lee of a number of wealthy people to his cabinet, all of whose members have offered their resignation. "People feel they've been short-traded," he says. "They feel Korean leaders have not respected the law. The general perception is those who run the new government are themselves scofflaws, defying the law."

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