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North Korea blows up reactor cooling tower

North Korea toppled the cooling tower at its plutonium-producing reactor today in a symbolic move to show its commitment to a disarmament deal that comes a day after it submitted an inventory of its nuclear programme.

Responding to the unusual opening by Pyongyang, the United States has moved towards taking the North off its list of state sponsors of terrorism and issued a proclamation lifting some sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

But experts say key questions remain about nuclear weapons and proliferation, and global powers still need to verify the claims in the declaration which details the amount of plutonium it had produced.

Video footage showed the 20-metre-high tower being brought down with a blast at its base that sent plumes of smoke into the air and left a crater of rubble and twisted steel. In its first reaction since making the declaration, North Korea's official media welcomed the US moves to drop it from the terrorism blacklist and called on Washington to halt its hostile policy toward it.

Steam coming from the tower in spy satellite photographs has been the most visible sign of operations at the facility, designed to produce arms-grade plutonium.

"This was an active reactor. This was a reactor that was making plutonium, that made enough plutonium for several devices including one that was tested in 2006 so it was important to put North Korea out of the plutonium business," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Another local broadcaster cited an unnamed, senior South Korean source as saying that six-country talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions could resume as early as next week.

"The key issue here is of course verification and what type of an inspection regime the North Koreans agree to," said Lee Chung-min, professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"Once we come down to the nitty-gritty of inspections, they will basically try to prolong the process as long as possible, without giving up nuclear weapons."

US President George Bush yesterday cautiously welcomed the declaration but warned North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in October 2006, that it faced "consequences" if it did not fully disclose its operations and continue to dismantle its nuclear programmes.

Once it is removed from the terrorism list, North Korea will be able to better tap into international finance.

Due to the small size of North Korea's rickety economy, any increases in investment and trade could have major effects, experts said, adding that increased revenue would likely make its way to Pyongyang's leaders and further solidify their rule.

"It will basically secure their legitimacy and their survivability," said Carl Baker, director of programmes at the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii.