Could North Korea still make nukes?

Destruction of its nuclear cooling tower was important but largely symbolic.

North Korea's destruction last week of the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear facility was a spectacular piece of geopolitical theater. But as the concrete crumbled, did Pyongyang's ability to produce plutonium really crumble as well?

The tower's fall largely was symbolic, say experts. In addition, North Korea has yet to take some of the most important steps in its planned nuclear disablement.

But North Korean officials have completed perhaps two-thirds of their disablement actions. While they technically could still resume plutonium production, the effort, expense, and time involved might make such a move prohibitively difficult.

"None of the steps North Korea has taken thus far are irreversible, but the destruction of this tower makes it harder to reconstitute their plutonium program," said Jon Wolfsthal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an analysis of the issue.

The events of the last week in June clearly constitute a turning point in the long, difficult effort to get North Korea to shut its fissile material production facilities, and perhaps eventually rid itself of its small nuclear weapon stockpile.

Besides destroying the Yongbyon tower, North Korea delivered an accounting of its 30-year effort to produce nuclear weapons to the other countries involved in six-party talks: China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

Much hard diplomatic work remains. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed publicly on June 28, the US remains committed to convincing North Korea to turn over any stockpiled fissile material, plus nuclear bombs.

US officials will now pore over Pyongyang's nuclear declaration, matching it against intelligence data in an attempt to gauge its accuracy. Already, some have criticized the declaration, saying that North Korea does not admit sharing nuclear technology with other nations, such as Syria. Nor does it admit to what the US suspects is a clandestine effort to produce highly enriched uranium.

But some experts outside government dispute the evidence of an extensive secret North Korean uranium enrichment process. Any efforts by North Korean scientists in this area might be interesting and relevant, but they are a "footnote" in the context of the country's plutonium production, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, earlier this year.

In that sense, the disablement of Pyongyang's plutonium facilities, per an agreement reached in the six-party talks, remains an important diplomatic success.

"Highest priority must be placed on completing the disablement ... and proceeding to the dismantlement state," wrote Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Lab and current professor at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, in a report on his recent visit to Yongbyon.

The US State Department says North Korea has completed at least eight of an agreed-upon 11 disablement steps.

According to Dr. Hecker, actions taken so far include removal of all of the Yongbyon complex's uranium conversion furnaces, the cutting of steel pipe cooling loops outside the reactor building, and the removal of the drive mechanism for the trolley that moves spent reactor fuel into the reprocessing facility.

At this point it would take at least six to 18 months for North Korea to repair and reconstitute its plutonium complex, according to Hecker's report.

Once all fuel rods remaining in the Yongbyon reactor are removed, one of the most important of the disablement steps – the removal of control rod drive mechanisms – is scheduled to occur.

"My overall assessment is that the disablement actions are significant . . . However, they have retained a hedge to be able to restart the facilities if the agreement falls through," wrote Hecker.

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