It's rare for happy video footage to come out of North Korea, but the other day, it happened. Camera crews were on hand Friday as authorities set off charges at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, instantly reducing the cooling tower to a heap of rubble.
That was the visual payoff for years of arduous and often exasperating negotiations with Kim Jong-il's regime. Dramatic though the explosion was, it signifies only one step on a journey that may never reach its intended destination.
Not so long ago, things were proceeding in a very different direction, marked by Pyongyang's detonation of a nuclear device in October 2006. Now we can see progress, however modest. The Bush administration deserves credit for pushing ahead with a task that is as crucial as it is demanding.
The cooling tower's destruction came shortly after North Korea kept a commitment by turning over a 60-page report detailing its production of plutonium, which can be used for nuclear weapons. It didn't provide some vital information, such as a full inventory of Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal and an account of whether it has supplied nuclear technology to Syria. Also missing was an account of its uranium enrichment program.
Maybe those facts can be extracted in time from North Korea. Still, it's important to note what has been accomplished, and not just what remains to be done. Even before the cooling tower imploded, the North Koreans had largely disabled the reactor and disgorged thousands of pages of records from it. It looks as though they are out of the business of producing plutonium -- which means they will have no additional supplies to use in weapons or to sell.
The United States now has information on how much plutonium there is to account for, and the means to verify the North Korean accounting. That gives us a good idea how many nuclear weapons they may have made (perhaps half a dozen) and how many they will have to give up if they agree to denuclearization.
Whether Kim will ever accept that is anyone's guess. Anyone familiar with his record of intransigence cannot be optimistic. But even if he insists on keeping a small stockpile of nukes, the elimination of this reactor should prevent him from producing so many weapons that he might be willing to smuggle them to willing buyers. Eliminating North Korea's nuclear arsenal is the ideal. But freezing it would be an important gain for the peace of the world.
Conservative critics say the entire negotiating effort, as Samuel Johnson said of a second marriage, is a triumph of hope over experience. But the administration's previous strategy of refusing to bargain, while trying to squeeze Pyongyang, certainly didn't work. "We can't ignore North Korea, we can't force them to give up their nukes, so the only strategy that is left is the incremental quid pro quo strategy," says Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations.
That approach has had many discouraging weeks, and doubtless it will have more. But last week was not one of them.
CHICAGO TRIBUNE, JUNE 29
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