North Korea is expected this week to turn over its long-delayed accounting of its nuclear weapons activities, part of a chain of events leading to a unique photo opportunity: the destruction of the cooling tower at Pyongyang's main reactor.
One item that won't make the declaration, which the White House says is due Thursday, will be North Korea's nuclear bombs. The omission means the world will have to wait for an answer to the question at the heart of the nearly six-year-old standoff: Is the North ready to give up its nuclear weapons?
North Korea has invited foreign TV stations to broadcast the toppling of the cooling tower to demonstrate its plan to give up its nuclear ambitions. Sung Kim, the top State Department expert on Korea, will travel to North Korea for the planned destruction of the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, an official at South Korea's Foreign Ministry said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing ministry policy.
It has not been confirmed when North Korea will blow up the 65-foot-tall tower. Media reports have said it will occur Friday, a day after North Korea is expected to submit a long-delayed list of its nuclear programs.
The cooling tower is a key element of the reactor, but its destruction at this point does not have much meaning because the reactor has already been nearly disabled so it cannot be easily restarted to produce plutonium for bombs.
North Korea agreed last year in negotiations with the United States and four other nations to disable the reactor and other key Yongbyon facilities, and fully account for all its nuclear programs.
But U.S. officials who earlier insisted North Korea's declaration should be "complete and correct" have repeatedly scaled back expectations for the document in the wake of resistance from Pyongyang, which failed to meet a deadline for submitting the list at the end of last year.
Declaration won't include many details
Already, the declaration that the White House says is due Thursday is not expected to include details of the North's alleged attempts to enrich uranium — the dispute that sparked the nuclear standoff in late 2002. The list also will not describe how the North allegedly helped Syria build a nuclear plant.
Instead, those thorny issues will simply be "acknowledged" by Pyongyang, with the U.S. hoping that it can get more information in later discussions with the North, given that it has few other ways to dig for intelligence from the world's most closed country.
The main U.S. envoy to nuclear talks with North Korea affirmed this week that the communist nation's bombs also will not make the cut for the declaration. Instead, details on the bombs will be left to the next stage of the talks, when Pyongyang is supposed to abandon and dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
"The North Koreans have acknowledged that we have to deal with the weapons," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said in Beijing. "We're going to deal with it as soon as we sit down again to begin to map out the remaining piece of this negotiation."
The White House said Wednesday it will move quickly to lift sanctions and remove North Korea from the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for handing over the declaration.
The North is expected in the declaration to say how much plutonium it has produced at its main reactor facility. The next step in the disarmament talks will be to verify that claim, through procedures that Hill said would be set up within 45 days.
Verification will mean reviewing documents
That verification will not mean the U.S. or any other country will yet actually see the weapons-grade plutonium, or that nuclear inspectors will roam the countryside peeking into the North's vast network of secret underground tunnels to track down traces of radioactive material.
Instead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this month that verification at first will simply mean reviewing documents and inspecting the reactor to infer how much plutonium was produced, to be compared with the amount that the North claims in the declaration.
"Once we have a clearer view of how much plutonium has actually been made, I think we'll also have a clearer view of what might have happened to it," Rice told an audience at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
In a report earlier this year, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security estimated the North has between 61 and 110 pounds of plutonium, which could be enough to build from six to 10 bombs. The North proved it could build a working nuclear bomb when it carried out an underground nuclear test blast in October 2006.
The fireworks at the reactor will be a mostly symbolic move signaling that North Korea does not intend to make more plutonium for bombs. The reactor was shut down last year and already largely disabled so that it cannot easily be restarted.
What happens next with the bombs and fissile material the North already has stockpiled will be the real test of Pyongyang's commitment to disarm.