North Korea promises steps to break nuclear-deal impasse

Pyongyang says it will release thousands of documents, long sought US officials, relating to its Yongbyon nuclear facility.

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North Korea has agreed to blow up a cooling tower attached to its main nuclear facility if the US removes it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. The move is the latest sign of a détente between Pyongyang and Washington, observers say.

A series of ongoing negotiations between North Korean and American officials has produced the agreement to destroy the tower at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The Washington Post reports that

[t]he destruction of the cooling tower is intended by US officials to be a striking visual, broadcast around the globe, that would offer tangible evidence that North Korea was retreating from its nuclear ambitions. Wisps of vapor from the cooling tower appear in most satellite photographs of Yongbyon, making it the facility's most recognizable feature, though experts say its destruction would be mostly symbolic.

Pyongyang also agreed to turn over thousands of documents related to activity at the Yongbyon plant, dating from 1990, a longstanding demand of the Bush administration. The Washington Times writes

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"The North Koreans were more forthcoming than they have been in the past about their plutonium effort," a senior administration official said about last week's meetings.
"I'm talking about their willingness to disclose what their program looks like – the elements, how the whole thing was put together, the facilities and processes by which they came up with the plutonium for weapons," he said.

In return, the US has agreed to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Such a reclassification would open the door to aid and economic development, writes the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo.

If it is removed from the list, North Korea will be no longer subject to the U.S. Export Administration Act, Foreign Assistance Act, International Financial Institutions Act, International Traffic in Arms Regulation, and Trading with the Enemy Act.
The possibility of international financial institutions developing and supporting North Korea is the biggest benefit. U.S. domestic laws oblige American members of the board of directors at international financial institutions to oppose any support including loans to countries on the list. The rationale is that aid to terrorism sponsors may be used to fund terrorist attacks on the U.S.

The Chosun Ilbo continues

The North will then also be able to import items for dual civilian and military purposes, including high-performance computers and chemical materials for industrial use.

The North Korean government is facing increased international pressure and looming domestic crises, which might be forcing Kim Jong-il to make this latest round of concessions. The Chosun Ilbo writes that if North Korea "improves ties with the U.S., it can ... get official aid from Washington."

Aid might be particularly useful since Pyongyang is feeling internal stress and widespread hunger because of skyrocketing global food prices, writes Reuters.

The chances of famine in North Korea have increased in line with the soaring price of rice on global markets, a Washington-based institute said on Wednesday.
"The country is in its most precarious situation since the end of the famine a decade ago," said a paper from the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

The situation in the North is becoming desperate, according to the Daily NK, a Seoul-based news agency that monitors North Korea.

[T[he findings [of a recent poll of North Korean refugees] reveal that 30 percent of the respondents reported having lost a family member to hunger and 40 percent were unaware of international food programs operating in the North, such as the United Nations World Food Programme's. 96 percent replied that they did not believe they had benefitted from the food programs, implying that aid has been diverted to the military.

The international community is tying aid to denuclearization, adding even more pressure on the isolated Pyongyong government, Reuters says.

The secretive nation has grown more dependent on rice imported from neighbouring China since a famine in the late 1990s that experts estimate killed at least 1 million people.
North Korea has in the past relied heavily on aid from China, South Korea and U.N. aid agencies to fill the gap.
But the new conservative government in South Korea has said it will tie aid to progress its neighbour makes in giving up development of nuclear weapons, on which Pyongyang is stalling.

The Bush administration is also turning up the pressure, even as it sits at the negotiating table. Mr. Bush recently alleged a Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in September matched North Korean design. AFP reports that

Bush said he did not initially tell Congress about the facility, which US officials say could have produced two nuclear bombs within a year of being completed, as he did not want to inflame regional tensions.
But national security officials briefed lawmakers last week, presenting intelligence they said showed Syria had been building a secret nuclear reactor for military ends with North Korean help -- an accusation Damascus denies.
Bush said the briefing was intended to advance "certain policy objectives."
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