North Korea Destroys Nuclear Tower

North Korea has destroyed the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Yongbyon Reactor Destruction Photo

In a gesture demonstrating its commitment to halt its nuclear weapons program, North Korea blew up the most prominent symbol of its plutonium production Friday. The 60-foot cooling tower at the North’s main nuclear power plant collapsed in a heap of shattered concrete and twisted steel, filmed by international and regional television broadcasters invited to witness the event.

The tower is a technically insignificant structure, relatively easy to rebuild. North Korea also has been disabling — but not destroying — more sensitive parts of the nuclear complex, such as the 5-megawatt reactor, a plant that makes its fuel and a laboratory that extracts plutonium from its spent fuel. Nonetheless, the destruction of the tower, the most visible element of the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, affirmed the incremental progress that has been made in American-led multilateral efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

A largely symbolic move, if a powerful one.

UPDATE (Dave Schuler): From CNN:

The destruction of the highly visible symbol of North Korea's long-secret nuclear program came just a day after the country released details of its program. "They fired a warning flare and then in three minutes the whole thing came tumbling down in a massive cloud of smoke," Amanpour said. "There was a moment of stunned silence as the magnitude of what had happened sunk in," Amanpour said. U.S. State Department officials and observers from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) watched from a reviewing stand on a ridge about 1,000 yards away, she said. "This is a very significant disablement step," the U.S. envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, said.

This is more than just symbolism. It’s a highly positive concrete step in the right direction.

Singularly important in this was the Chinese role in the negotiations. China has always been the 500-lb. gorilla in dealing with North Korea, their most important patron (some would say enabler), and the constructive role that China has played has largely been one of self-interest. The Chinese authorities don’t want North Korea to become a one-stop shopping center for terrorists or its supporters any more than we do. Additionally, North Korea’s presumed detonation of a nuclear weapon in October 2006 was seen as a slap in the face to China.

The developments in the negotiations with North Korea have been a rare instance of any American administration let alone the Bush Administration being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Indeed, some have suggested that progress by lower level diplomats was made possible because the guys at the top were preoccupied.

Although it’s demonstrable progress it’s only a baby step and we’ll need to keep our eyes on North Korea. Part of our apparent lack of ability to walk and chew gum at the same time mentioned above is that we’re inclined to take our eyes off the ball. The last time we did that with North Korea it did not turn out well.

(Ha, ha. Apparently, James and I were writing our posts at the same time. I’d only disagree in that I think it’s a little more than a symbolic step. It’s a real one but a baby step. Moved to consolidate posts.)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. B. Minich says:

    Plus, you can find a cool video on the BBC’s website. Although the greyness of the video makes me wonder if, rather than just always being filmed by bad cameras, North Korea is ACTUALLY a greyish, grainy country.

  2. c. wagener says:

    Although the greyness of the video makes me wonder if, rather than just always being filmed by bad cameras, North Korea is ACTUALLY a greyish, grainy country.

    From Calvin’s dad:

    Q. How come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?
    A. Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It’s just that the world was black and white then. The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.
    Q. But then why are old paintings in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn’t artists have painted it that way?
    A. Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.
    Q. But… But how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn’t their paints have been shades of gray back then?
    A. Of course, but they turned colors like everything else did in the ’30s.
    Q. So why didn’t old black and white photos turn color too?
    A. Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?

    Clearly North Korea is still living in the 1930’s.

  3. Derrick says:

    Wait, but I thought it was SUICIDE to go and talk to Teh Evil regimes. Surely, it is only part of their plot towards world hegemony and we are helpless to influence them. I say that it’s a trick and we just listen to Cheney, Kristol and friends and just bomb the ever-living sh!t out of them.

  4. c. wagener says:


    So we take a non-nuclear power and through our aid give them the means to build nuclear weapons. They sell ballistic missiles and attempt to proliferate nuclear weapons to terrorists states. Meanwhile we bribe them in various ways and in turn they lie to us, over and over.

    Now, in return for food, fuel oil, machine parts, prestige, etc., they destroy a cooling tower of a nuclear plant that is at the end of its life. No turn over of weapons, no information on uranium or proliferation.

    In Iraq we keep a non-nuclear terrorist state from acquiring nuclear weapons. We also receive the side benefits of dismantling Libya’s nuclear program and A.Q. Kahn’s Nuke-R-Us business. Iraq has the chance to be a relatively nonviolent democracy in the middle east. North Koreans get to continue to starve.

    The first you consider a victory, the later an evil scheme hatched by Dick Cheney?

  5. Eneils Bailey says:

    I would not get too excited here. I doubt blowing up a 60 foot cooling tower would present a problem to resuming production. See that river in the background.

    North Korea also has been disabling — but not destroying — more sensitive parts of the nuclear complex,

    I would be more interested in watching them unload the actual reactor vessels and then completely disabling the ability to load them back up.

    That cooling tower destruction was symbolic, at best.

  6. Eneils Bailey says:

    “They fired a warning flare and then in three minutes the whole thing came tumbling down in a massive cloud of smoke,”

    That would have been an appropriate time to drop a deep penetration MOAB directly on the containment structure. The Russians and Third World countries are noted for skimping on the construction of safety features.

  7. Eneils Bailey says:

    By the way, more people have meet their demise in the back seat of Ted Kennedy’s 1968 Oldsmobile than have died as a direct relation to a commercial Nuclear reactor malfunction in the US.

    We have to again gear up the technology to produce power for industrial and residential use. It has been about over twenty years since we completed our last Nuclear power plants. I was involved(at the edges) of getting some of last plants built in the US. Plant Hatch and the Baxley facility, both in Georgia.

    Japan and and France are so far ahead of us in this area, that it makes us look like tenth century goat herders.