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Siegfried Hecker, the former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director (1986-1997) and now the head for the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, made his sixth visit to rogue North Korea in November.
And last week at the Church of Latter Day Saints in Los Alamos, Hecker made a presentation where he had a lot of answers but just as many questions still linger in regard to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
In November, Hecker along with his Stanford colleagues John Lewis and Robert Carlin, flew to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
Right before Hecker’s trip, North Korea bombed a South Korean island near the border and four were killed. It was the first attack on a civilian area since the Korean War. And eight months earlier, a North Korean torpedo allegedly sank a South Korean ship, killing 46. But the North Koreans denied responsibility.
With tensions rising, Hecker was not sure what to expect during his trip.
“Sometimes they show you stuff, sometimes they don’t,”
This was one of the times where the North Koreans showed the U.S. delegation a lot as the Americans were taken to the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex.
“At the fuel fabrication site, we were taken to a new facility that contained a modern, small industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges that was recently completed and said to be producing low enriched uranium destined for fuel for the new reactor, Hecker said.
“Unlike all previously visited Yongbyon nuclear facilities, the facility was ultra-modern and clean. We were also told that this facility was constructed and operated strictly with indigenous resources and talent.”
Hecker said he was stunned at what he saw. He was expecting just to see a few dozen centrifuges and was not expecting to walk into such a modern facility with a marble staircase.
“My jaw just dropped,” Hecker said.
Hecker said there was no evidence that the centrifuges actually worked.
He was told by the North Koreans, “We didn’t want to show you this but our superiors wanted to show you this.”
Hecker said the North Koreans wanted him to announce to the world what he had seen. Hecker told them he was not going to do that. But he granted an interview to the New York Times and the word was out on North Korea.
“They ran the story on Nov. 20 and since then I have had at least 200 interview requests,” he said. “I have done maybe a dozen. But I posted a trip report on the Stanford site so the media would get it right. I just stuck to the facts.”
So what about the nuclear threat?
Hecker said a lot depends on how the North Koreans use their technology whether it is for electricity or for bombs. He said the North Koreans are using the fact they have the technology to use as a deterrent in their dealings with South Korea and its allies.
Hecker believes the bombs are a low threat, but what concerns him is there might be an accident or a miscalculation. The biggest concern, though, is that he is worried the North Koreans might be using its nuclear information on technology and exporting it to countries like Iran or Burma (now Myanmar).
Hecker showed a slide from a North Korea newspaper which indicated what would happen if there was a major conflict with South Korea.
The editorial read: “If a war breaks out on this land, it will bring nothing but a nuclear holocaust.”
Hecker also spent time talking about societal and political situation in North Korea.
In the U.S. media, North Korea is characterized as a dictatorial, isolationist country with very few modern conveniences.
Hecker said some of that is true, but he said North Korea is one of 144 countries in the world. And Hecker said more than half of them have diplomatic ties with the Kim Jong Il regime.
The North Korean people also are catching up with the technology. In his 2009 visit, Hecker witnessed citizens talking on pay phones. But in his latest visit, he saw numerous people walking around Pyongyang carrying cell phones.
“When I saw the cell phones, I saw hope,” Hecker said. “They are going to lose control over their people. And that is what we hope for.”