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Last Friday night, the meeting hall at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints was packed to standing room only. The guest speaker was none other than Siegried Hecker, the former Los Alamos National Laboratory director who served in that position from 1986 to 1997.
Since leaving the lab, Hecker has gone to become an internationally-recognized expert on nuclear energy, weaponry and safety. He’s currently a research professor at Stanford University.
At the church Friday, Hecker gave his take on North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani and how they are both changing the landscape of international relations and proliferation of nuclear weaponry.
He began is his lecture with a question.
“What makes me qualified to talk about Iran and North Korea? I think, quite frankly it’s that my most important qualification is that I’m from Los Alamos,” he said, getting a laugh from the audience.
“It turns out if you’re from Los Alamos, especially a nuclear guy from Los Alamos, the doors are open to anywhere in the world.”
Hecker went on to explain that his background and experience has allowed him to tour and gather information about many nuclear facilities from around the world, especially North Korea, which he’s toured several times in the past 10 years.
“I have access that very few people actually have,” Hecker said to the audience.
His lecture, “What a Difference a Year Makes” contrasted the behavior of Jong-un and Rouhani of a year ago to present day, mainly how Iran started out as the nuclear aggressor and North Korea as being compliant and cooperative.
Now, as Hecker highlighted U.S. President Barack Obama’s “historic” phone call with Rouhani and Jong-un’s recent leadership purge and threats against South Korea, he said things are much different.
“What i thought might be interesting is to give you insight into what’s going on in those places,” Hecker said.
On Iran, he started with Iran’s nuclear collaborations with the U.S. when the U.S. backed Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī, (The Shah of Iran) right up until the Islamic Revolution in that country brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979. In spite of the progress Iran has made, Hecker told the audience they haven’t succeeded yet in acquiring or building a nuclear weapon.
“I would say they don’t have the bomb, mainly because they don’t have the fissile materials, the fuel for the bomb, either plutonium or enriched uranium, but they’ve continued to put in place all of those things they would need to make plutonium or highly enriched uranium for the last 10 years,” he said. “The key with all these negotiations now is, how do we get them not to turn the switch.”
It was quite a different story when it came to North Korea.
Hecker said that while Iran in the early years of the nuclear age was partnering with the U.S., North Korea was working with the then U.S.S.R (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) to develop nuclear energy.
Eventually, the North Koreans succeeded in exploding their first nuclear weapon in 2003, in spite of losing Soviet support when the USSR broke apart in the late 1980s and 1990s..
However, Hecker said that even though they have nuclear capability, he finds it highly unlikely they will use it militarily against the United States. He gave the North Korean’s spotty success rate of their nuclear testing and delivery program as an example.
While he also said the key to North Korea’s containment is continued vigilance and negotiation, he also thought cultural exchanges were a good idea. He may not wholly approve of former U.S. basketball player Dennis Rodman’s behavior, but “basketball diplomacy” overall is a good idea.
“Any sort of exchange like that, where they see that we all don’t have horns, is good,” he said. “But when the guy is Dennis Rodman, that makes me worried, a lot.”