Jeffrey LewisNORKS Will Blow Up Cooling Tower

This is kind of a big deal. Glenn Kessler explains why, perfectly.

North Korea has agreed to blow up the cooling tower attached to its Yongbyon nuclear facility within 24 hours of being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, diplomats said this week.

The destruction of the cooling tower is intended by U.S. 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.

North Korean officials had privately indicated previously they would destroy the tower as part of the disablement of Yongbyon. During talks last week with a top U.S. State Department official, Sung Kim, North Korea reaffirmed it would act quickly after Pyongyang is removed from the terrorism list.

Much more important — though not nearly as visually striking — is the agreement to provide “thousands of pages of documents, dating back to 1990, concerning the daily production records” from Yongbyon that will allow us to verify the plutonium production declaration.

I’ve been meaning to say something about the verifying the 30kg declaration. Maybe today.


  1. Andreas Persbo

    Please do write something about verification. I’ve been meaning to write something about that for some time, but as my co-authors can attest, it’s still waiting in draft stage. The pressures of London life, and trilateral presentations in Geneva…

  2. Andy (History)

    After some consideration, I’m not too impressed with this plan. The US is trading a substantive concession for an insubstantial one – removal from the terrorism list in exchange for what appears to be a Hollywood-style demolition of an already disabled cooling tower that served an already disabled reactor. The assertion that this publicity stunt “would offer tangible evidence that North Korea was retreating from its nuclear ambitions” does not make much sense, particularly if the DPRK is less than forthright in its declaration. I hope there is more to this that what is currently apparent.

  3. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    The material balances approach to verification is a technique that has some pretty serious limitations if you take a perspective I suggested earlier of a “distributed” nuclear program.

    While smuggling of any significant quantities of material is possible to police, tracking down relatively small quantities (a few hundred kilos here and there) is a much more daunting task.

    There is enough “loose” material from the errors in estimates and leakages among different places that if the NKs got a hold of some of it (i.e. from the collapse of the USSR, Khan network, etc.) that the calculation based on Yongban can be wildly off.

    The second issue I raise is just precisely how sophisticated is the design of their bomb? A sophisticated design would have consumed much less than a cruder design. So beyond the declaration, a look at the actual bomb design (assuming that DPRK didn’t spoof it by giving the inspectors a different design than the one they actually used), would be helpful.

  4. Arch Roberts (History)

    Here’s an example of potentially loose material: the amount of material unaccounted for (MUF) on the books at the Ulba fuel fabrication plant in Kazakhstan is greater than the annual throughput: 2800 metric tons! I am not saying anything might have come from there, nor that the hangup may not be roughly that amount. Rather, I mean to point out, as Lao did, the inherent limitations in the material balance methods in use. And to their credit, the Kazakhs have agreed to a massive project to reconcile the books.

    Still, it gives one pause, no?

  5. Arch Roberts Jr (History)

    Here’s some interesting reading from The Nelson Report:

    “KOREA…first, is sounds like A/S Chris Hill is waiting on word from Pyongyang that sufficient documentation is ready that a Declaration on nuclear questions will pass Congressional and critical scrutiny…at which point Korea Desk chief Sung Kim will be dispatched to Pyongyang to bring it all back.

    Given that at least a week or two will be required to parse the information…if all goes as hoped, observers expect another round of 6 Party Talks will be announced for the end of this month, or early June.

    That puts into perspective work now being done to complete Congressional action on waiving the Glenn Amendment terrorism sanctions, hopefully in time for the Memorial Day Recess.

    Senate experts have hammered out informal agreement with House Republicans on this, but there are some serious reservations from the NGO community which need to be resolved.

    But if progress continues, the various legislative clearances should be ready in time to meet the 6PT schedule note above.

    Now, the jobs gossip, all good: Korea Desk chief Sung Kim is in line for a promotion to give him more status in his role as taking some of the negotiating weight from Chris Hill’s back.

    Some folks think Hill will ask Ambassadorial rank for Kim, but given the political “hold” on Kathy Stephens’ Senate confirmation for Seoul, observers feel it is more realistic to expect, at least for now, the “Special Envoy” status enjoyed by Jack Pritchard and Joe deTrani.

    In any event, Kim will move on from the Desk, and if Hill’s request holds, his place will be taken by Kurt Tong. Also moving up will be desker Yuri Kim, to “Special Advisor”, replacing Chris Klein.

    Yuri Kim’s place on the Desk will be taken by Eric Richardson, currently on loan to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

    The gossip which observers think makes no sense includes the inevitable speculation that with Sec. State Condi Rice heading out to the upcoming Asia Regional Forum, she will surprise the world with a visit to N. Korea.

    This is not going to happen, we’d bet a very expensive lunch. But the gossip has Condi going to witness the DPRK blowing up the cooling tower at Yongbyon…an important “dismantlement” step, but surely not something justifying the presence of the Secretary of State?

    An interesting tid-bit includes Hill’s hopes that he has been able to persuade the DPRK to include some useful language on Japanese abductees…although sources are not clear on how it would be included in, or parallel to a Declaration.

    Hill has previously said that abductees is an integral part of the 6PT process…being included in a Working Group…but Japanese officials have clearly not felt this meets their domestic political needs.

    You will recall that observers were taken aback by the very personal involvement of President Bush in the humanitarian tragedy of the abductees issue, when Megumi Yakota’s parents visited the White House a year ago.

    Perhaps caught-up in the emotion of the moment, Bush said things which, we reported at the time, risked putting the US on record on abductees in a much firmer way than seemed practical, in terms of the strategic nuclear issue.

    As noted, Hill, and the President, have been given a very hard time by press and political elements in Japan, despite Hill’s repeated assurances that the US would not turn a blind eye to the humanitarian issue, while seeking a resolution of the strategic concerns.

    The “crunch” is rapidly approaching on this potential disconnect, since, as noted above, Congress is working to adopt legislative language clearing the way for a Presidential waiver on the terrorism list sanctions.”

  6. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    “reconcile the books” in Kazakhstan.

    That sounds like a job for Arthur Anderson and Jeffrey Skilling.

  7. Arch Roberts Jr. (History)

    Actually, I think Skilling has gone to work for Kazakhatompromexport, or whatever the new company is…

  8. CriticalBill (History)

    Is the demolition going to be performed by the North Koreans or by an American company?

  9. Arun (History)

    The documents are definitely much more important than the destruction of the cooling tower of a disabled reactor… Is it 30kg or 50kg? Time for Regression Analysis 101… Looking forward to reading your takes on Verification.

  10. JNC (History)


    This is from today’s WSJ.

    Vetoing the Verifiers
    May 8, 2008; Page A14
    The State Department is justifying its decision to let North Korea renege on its pledge to give a “complete declaration of its nuclear programs” by promising a strict verification regime. So why is Foggy Bottom cutting its own verification experts out of the loop?
    The State Department’s systematic exclusion of its own Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation has gone unreported as the North Korean diplomacy proceeds. But it is causing concern on Capitol Hill and has already led to a proposal to require State to submit a report to Congress describing how the U.S. will verify any nuclear deal. Sponsored by Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the legislation passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week with the support of Democratic Chairman Howard Berman.
    The mandate of the verification bureau, as described on the State Department’s Web site, is to provide oversight “on all matters relating to verification or compliance with international arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament agreements and commitments.” It “supports the Secretary” in “developing and implementing robust and rigorous verification and compliance policies.”
    The verification bureau was created by a Republican Congress in 1999 over the objections of the Clinton Administration and State Department careerists who didn’t want agreements subject to additional oversight. The bureau’s biggest success to date is Libya, where it played a central role in dismantling the country’s WMD programs in 2003. There the bureau worked closely with experts from the Departments of Defense and Energy as well as with Britain and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
    North Korea is a different story. The verifiers “have no voice so far,” one person close to the process told us. They aren’t part of the negotiating teams talking to the North Koreans and they’ve been excluded from key internal meetings. No one from the verification bureau participated in a recent State Department trip to Pyonygang intended to work out verification issues.
    Nor is the verification bureau in charge of monitoring the disabling of the North’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. One bureau professional took part, but he was invited for his technical expertise; he was not there as a verifier. Paula DeSutter, the assistant secretary who heads the bureau, declined to comment.
    Incredibly, the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs is calling the shots – talking to the North Koreans, hand picking experts to work at Yongbyon, and overseeing disablement. Call it the Chris Hill Show. Mr. Hill – the assistant secretary for East Asia – has also made a mockery of the interagency process. The verification bureau’s Pentagon counterparts, who were closely involved in the six-party Korean diplomacy until mid-2005, have also been kept in exile.
    Now there’s talk that the East Asia bureau – not the verification bureau – will also end up monitoring any final six-party agreement. Not only does East Asia lack the technical expertise to verify a nuclear agreement, its staffers would hardly be eager to find violations in an accord negotiated by their superiors. There’s even talk State may outsource some of the inspection work to China, which will be chairing a verification group within the six-party group. But China would have no incentive to blow the whistle on its client state.
    The fact that Mr. Hill and his boss, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, are marginalizing their own verifiers is further reason to doubt their North Korea deal. The diplomats want to deliver a “success” and are afraid that if the verifiers get a close look, they will expose it as a fraud. Among the uncomfortable questions: Where is all of the plutonium North Korea has produced over the years? What happened to the uranium program that Pyongyang once boasted about but now says does not exist? What exactly did the North proliferate to Syria?
    No verification can deliver 100% certainty, and North Korea, with its history of cheating and lying, would be a difficult case under even the most stringent inspection regimes. The disarmament of Libya succeeded because Moammar Gadhafi decided to cooperate. There’s zero indication that Kim Jong Il shares that frame of mind.
    North Korea’s geography offers special challenges too. It’s a mountainous country, with caves hiding mobile missile launchers aimed at Seoul. The military has vast underground facilities built with the help of its former Soviet patrons. Will these be open to inspectors? Even assuming that Kim will allow unimpeded and unannounced access – a leap of diplomatic faith – special expertise is needed to decide where to inspect and what to look for.
    The State Department’s verification bureau was created in the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s slogan, “trust but verify.” The Gipper was referring to the disarmament of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but his principle applies equally to North Korea today. If Foggy Bottom won’t trust its own verifiers enough to make them part of any disarmament deal, then the rest of us shouldn’t trust any deal struck by the Bush State Department.

  11. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    “Among the uncomfortable questions”

    If you begin with the premise that the program is “distributed”, I am not even sure that even if the best inspectors got on the case, they would find very much.

    Unless it is a Libyan style, “we help you get everything” co-operation, which is certainly not forthcoming from DPRK.

    Is the DPRK program a part of a larger whole?

    The Syrian evidence is interesting.