Editorial: North Korea’s nuclear program questionable

That was certainly a spectacular visual, repeatedly shown on television last weekend, of the cooling tower of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility being demolished and crumbling to the ground in a cloud of concrete dust.

Whether it really means North Korea is in fact giving up its quest for deliverable nuclear weapons is another question.

When U.S. real estate developers demolish an aging hotel or office building, it is usually because they plan to build a larger and more elaborate facility on the same site. We don’t yet know North Korea’s intentions in this regard.

There’s reasonably good evidence that North Korea’s “hermit kingdom” has been seeking for some years to phase out its isolation from the rest of the world, bring the Korean war that ended in the 1950s without a formal peace agreement to a formal end, and resume relations with the United States and the rest of the world.

The price for such an arrangement, as outlined during the six-party negotiations brokered by China, North Korea’s lifeline to food and other goods it is unable to produce for itself, has been an end to the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

Last month, prior to the symbolic destruction of the cooling tower at the largely abandoned Yongbyon complex, North Korea delivered a 60-page declaration regarding its nuclear program.

But the report contained major omissions: It does not indicate whether Pyongyang has already built weapons from the plutonium extracted from the Yongbyon reactor, nor does it confirm that Yongbyon is the North’s only nuclear facility.

There’s also the little matter that North Korea has cheated on virtually every agreement it has made regarding its nuclear weapons program. The 1994 Agreed Framework was supposed to curtail North Korea from working toward nuclear weapons, but the regime later admitted it cheated on that agreement and closed its door to international inspectors. The six-party talks under way for several years have still not produced an agreement for on-demand international inspections.

Nonetheless, even baby steps toward the evolution of North Korea in the direction of being a reasonably normal nation are welcome, if only because the likely alternatives to continuing to negotiate with Pyonyang are all worse.

An economic blockade would not work because China, already the North’s only significant trading partner, has announced it would oppose it.

Air strikes on the Yongbyon facility would have carried a risk of war on the Korean peninsula — and would have been akin to shooting a corpse. If North Korea still has a nuclear weapons program, it is located elsewhere.

President Bush’s removal of North Korea from the United States’ list of terrorism-sponsoring nations was a reward for the partial (and late) report delivered last month.

Continuing negotiations may be the least-worst way to move toward the goal of a North Korea without nuclear weapons.

But it’s a long-shot prospect at best.