Finding the truth in the debris
AS NORTH KOREAN spectaculars go, the promise to blow up the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the source of plutonium for Kim Jong Il’s nuclear arsenal, is a welcome new departure. The North Korean leader’s previous attention-grabber was the detonation of a nuclear “device”, possibly a small bomb, in October 2006.
Ironically, it was that blast which at last got China to lean hard on Mr Kim. This helped propel forward six-party talks that also include America, South Korea, Japan and Russia. As The Economist went to press this week, China was preparing to receive a long-sought account of North Korea’s nuclear activities, America said it would lift some sanctions and start removing North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism; the destruction of the Yongbyon tower was to symbolise a new turn in North Korea’s dealings with the world.
This and other work to put Yongbyon out of action is welcome. North Korea agreed in 2005 to end all its nuclear programmes in return for energy assistance, and improved trade and political relations, especially with America. But the six-party effort has been repeatedly derailed.
Further progress could likewise be painfully slow. The declaration China receives this week was expected to reveal how much plutonium Mr Kim has produced, but not what he has done with it. Christopher Hill, America’s chief negotiator, says that a tally of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and their eventual dismantling is still a long way off.
There are likely to be other gaps too. North Korea is expected to own up to possessing 30-40kg of plutonium; America estimates the true figure could be 40-50kg. The difference is several bombs’ worth. American nuclear experts have been poring over 18,000 pages of documents North Korea handed over to back up its figure.
But the documents themselves have deepened suspicion about other nefarious nuclear activities. According to Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, North Korea took delivery of some 20 centrifuge machines for spinning uranium—another potential bomb ingredient—from a black-market nuclear network headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the disgraced former head of one of Pakistan’s nuclear laboratories. Other evidence too points to a possible parallel nuclear effort. Mr Kim flatly denies this. But tests on the Yongbyon documents show unexplained traces of uranium.
North Korea has also given America an assurance that it is not now spreading its nuclear expertise to others, but there are doubts about that too. America recently released photographs that appear to show a nuclear reactor very like the one at Yongbyon being built secretly in Syria with North Korean help—until it was destroyed by Israel last September.
America has 45 days to look hard at the declaration Mr Kim hands over this week. That is the length of time it takes to remove a country from its terror list. The North Korean nuclear problem isn’t solved yet.