Our man in Yongbyang

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By Roger Snodgrass

Once again the volatile nuclear negotiations with North Korea have hit a snag. As might be expected Los Alamos’ own nuclear diplomat emeritus is on his way to the scene.


Amid reports of a possible new missile test, rumors of a hidden fuel processing capacity and a spike in rhetoric on the peninsula, Sig Hecker returns to North Korea next week for an annual ritual that seems always revealing and evolving.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the region now, traveling from China to Indonesia this weekend. The Associated Press reported that she had encouraged Chinese leaders to step up their pressure on North Korea to address its nuclear programs.


Hecker’s mission with an academic colleague John Lewis is called a “track two dialogue,” because it is unofficial and non-governmental.


But Hecker said, “This relationship is very effective in the dialogue. They give me a lot of access.”


Each time he has gone to North Korea since 2004, he has been aware that his hosts have had a message they want to communicate.


“Everything they’ve done is very well thought out, very deliberate, nothing off the top of their head check “on what,” Hecker said. “They think about what avenues they will use to get their message across.”


On his first visit in 2004, Hecker said, U.S. officials really didn’t want him to go out of concern that he would be used to convey propaganda.


But with the backing of a couple of people “with guts,” he said, like Linton Brooks, the former head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Hecker went ahead.


“I went very conscious of being used,” he said. “But I felt I had enough experience (in Russia and China) that I made sure I would not be compromised.”


He came away from that first trip with not one, but two real scoops, an eye-witness account that North Korea had as they claimed removed the hot fuel rods from the retaining pool at the nuclear complex and that they most certainly had been able to process more than enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon.


That fact was borne out in October 2006, when the country exploded a low-yield device.


He related that he has requested access to the North Korean’s nuclear center in Yongbyang to check on the status of what they call “the disablement of nuclear facilities.”


When he was there a year ago, Hecker said, North Korean officials were in the midst of making their facilities “non-operational,” a process that would be punctuated with a highly visible and symbolic detonation of the cooling tower at the end of June 2008.


But that process began to slow down last July.


The reason given in the 6-party negotiations by North Korea at that time, Hecker said, was that their adversaries had not met their obligations, mainly in terms of providing energy alternatives, which meant the North Koreans had to slow down their dismantling activities.


On the whole, Hecker believes that whatever else may be going on and whatever the apparent roadblocks, “North Korea had reached a decision to give away their nuclear empire. They’re after security.”


One other piece of related business, he said, has to do with a small research reactor from the North Koreans have left over from the 1960s, which is not a proliferation concern.


“There are maybe 10,000 people in that facility, with nothing left to do,” Hecker said. “One thing we could do is help reactivate that old reactor to make medical isotopes.”


Before the trip to North Korea, Hecker stopped in at Los Alamos and spoke at a classified Directors Colloquium about six of countries he has visited, including North Korea, and how their nuclear programs have evolved.


The former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory (1986-97), now teaching at Stanford and working on non-proliferation issues at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, was interviewed in his office at the lab on Feb. 13.