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A large crowed turned out to hear renowned plutonium expert Siegfried Hecker recount his six visits to North Korea since 2004, including his most recent trip in April.
Hecker is an emeritus director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and the diverse audience gathered in the Mormon Church’s meeting hall included former colleagues, current LANL scientists, Hecker’s grandchildren, local students and County Administrator Max Baker.
“Sig Hecker’s talk and discussion was very interesting,” Baker said. “I think we have some national concerns that folks in Washington are working on and his talk helped me understand and put into context all that’s going on in the world in terms of nuclear issues.”
Hecker briefed the audience on the message North Korea requested he bring back to the U.S. president following each visit.
“This is the North Korea story in six visits,” he said. ‘They gave us incredible access.”
Each visit saw improvement in relations and signs of prosperity. Hecker was allowed to walk unescorted through a park.
He attended a performance at the Children’s Palace and described “a very positive visit to the Academy of Agricultural Science.”
But the country remains repressive and reclusive. It has four death camps, at least 17 forced labor camps and other inhumane facilities.
Hecker recounted how former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was very close to negotiating a visit to North Korea by President Clinton but time ran out as his term ended in early 2001.
President Bush came into office, did not care for the framework of the deal and had no interest in meeting with the “axis of evil” or its “pigmy” sized leader Kim Jong Il, Hecker said.
Negotiations through the Six Party Talks led North Korea to agree to dismantle its nuclear facilities.
They did for a while but as tensions flared and talks collapsed, the country returned to its old ways.
Hecker described North Korea as an Island of instability in a sea of economic boom.
“North Korea has the raw materials and nuclear infrastructure for the full plutonium nuclear fuel cycle,” he said.
He spoke of signs of hope in the new generation of North Koreans to want a different existence. Hecker visited a middle school where he saw a young girl who had written an essay on Thomas Edison.
He photographed a youth in the subway during one of his visits who wore a black ball cap on backwards stamped with a white Nike “Swoosh” logo.
“It’s going to be hard to keep that young man down on the farm,” he said. “Were there is swoosh – there is hope.”
Hecker now works as a research professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University.
His interests include plutonium science, nuclear weapon policy and international security, cooperative nuclear threat reduction and nuclear security including nonproliferation and counter terrorism.
Hecker is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation.
He joined LANL as graduate research assistant and postdoctoral fellow and went on to lead the laboratory’s Materials Science and Technology Division and Center for Materials Science before serving as laboratory director from 1986 through 1997, and senior fellow until July 2005.
Hecker’s achievements have been recognized with the American Nuclear Society’s Seaborg Medal and many other awards, including the Alumni Association Gold Medal and the Undergraduate Distinguished Alumni Award from Case Western Reserve University, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in metallurgy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Hecker’s talk will be broadcast in its entirety soon on Pac 8 as part of Behind the White Coat: Conversations with Los Alamos Scientists. The program is produced and hosted by Carol A. Clark and sponsored by Los Alamos National Bank.