Despite years of non-proliferation efforts, the Obama administration has come to the uncomfortable conclusion that North Korea’s nuclear capability is “significantly more advanced” than previously thought.
Senior administration and intelligence have come to that conclusion based in large part on a recent trip to North Korea by Stanford expert Dr. Siegfried Hecker, the former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Hecker’s first trip to North Korea was in 2004 when he says, "I actually wound up in a conference room, in their reprocessing facility, holding the plutonium in my hands in a glass jar.”
He has since returned to North Korea six more times. After his seventh trip last month, Hecker made a shocking new find: "The North Korean technology that I saw is ahead of the Iranians."
Now he’s saying what nobody wants to hear: North Korea has the capability to export its technology, possibly to other nations that might not hesitate to use it against the U.S. – like Iran.
Last year, he saw an empty facility at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. But this year he saw 2,000 "pristine" and "beautiful" uranium-enriching centrifuges.
"It really was quite stunning to see that because I simply didn't expect them to have this sophistication, and this scale of a facility,” said Hecker. And judging by his timing, they built it in one year – almost impossible to do.
"The past facilities I have been in ... the control equipment is old-style, 1950's American style." But the new control room was similar to "what you would see in a good facility today in the United States."
Hecker, the co-director of the Center of International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, is speaking openly about what he saw and believes that’s why the North Koreans welcomed his visit.
"The North Koreans expect me to do that, because that's the way that they can actually have an effect." Hecker believes they have enough plutonium for four to eight bombs.
“The message clearly was, ‘Look, we have the plutonium, and if we have the plutonium that means we have the bomb.’ And they wanted me to take that message back to the U.S. government and say, ‘Look, North Korea has the bomb, they want some respect.’"
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Hecker says he saw what few would expect a poor country suffering under severe economic sanctions could afford: a new uranium facility with a bright blue roof. Not hidden, as most would think, instead boldly saying, “We are here.”
Hecker spoke with NBC’s Richard Lui about his recent trip to North Korea and what it means for U.S.- North Korea relations and global nuclear proliferation.
Richard Lui: You estimate North Korea has the capability to build four to eight nuclear weapons. What size would those bombs be like? Like Nagasaki, Hiroshima?
Hecker: The best guess right now is 24 to 42 kilograms. That would make sort of four to eight Nagasaki-like, what I would call a primitive bomb. [Primitive nuclear bombs are bigger in size; advanced bombs are smaller].
A Nagasaki-like bomb means it's a 10,000-pound bomb, so it's huge, you have to put it on a plane to deliver it or in a van or on a boat.
To miniaturize that big bomb takes a significant amount of technology know-how and most importantly nuclear testing... I don't believe they have yet been able to miniaturize, and certainly I do not believe that they could have the confidence in a small miniaturized bomb to put it on a missile.
Lui: You have some concern about the military receiving some fissile materials. What are those concerns?
Hecker: What I'm mostly concerned about is state control. My biggest concern about North Korean’s nuclear weapons is actually not so much the weapons in their hands, but the weapons or materials or technologies getting out of their hands.
My biggest concern is: “Could they be building another reactor?” “Could they be helping the Iranians with a plutonium program?”
Now [my concern] is actually, could they be moving into uranium arena and uranium? The methods of making the uranium are very, very difficult to track.
Lui: You've said North Korea has been working on its nuclear program for decades and it would be impossible to build the centrifuge facility if they just started in April.
Hecker: Iran has taken 23 years to get to where they are. And in my opinion the North Korean technology that I saw is ahead of the Iranians.
My own view is that North Korea has also been pursuing this for decades – most likely three decades or so. But particularly over the past 10-15 years, is when I believe they first of all bought the materials. Then they shaped the centrifuge components, bought many of the components and equipment. And then, they must have received some training somewhere, and had been working at this for many years in order to be able to get this going.
Lui: How does this rate in terms of concern from 1 to 10?
Hecker: When I put together my list of top nuclear concerns, it actually turns out Pakistan comes up on top of the list. But North Korea is up there, it keeps vacillating between #2 and #4.
So North Korea is near the top, and particularly, what's so important about North Korea is that if we could solve the North Korean problem we would give an enormous boost to the global non-proliferation regime. That is what I actually see as the biggest piece of hope, not just to make sure they don't blow up the place, but actually to see whether we can make some progress.
Lui: What is your role when you visit North Korea?
Hecker: I do not come in as an inspector. They invite outside interlocutors into North Korea, particularly when there is no formal dialogue.
So when they want to send a message, or when they want to get some sense as to what is the United States actually thinking. I'm not an official representative of the U.S. government… However, they know I have access to the U.S. government.
To me, that's a very good sign, they want to keep talking, there's at least some hope that one might be able to come up with some resolution.
Lui: What are conversations like when you are talking with government officials here in the United States? What was their reaction?
Hecker: The government officials that I briefed – in the State Department, the Department of Energy, and the National Security Council – I think most of them were surprised the way I described the scale and the sophistication, but they weren't surprised at the fact that uranium enrichment actually existed.
I think we all expected that they have uranium enrichment – I've said it directly to my North Korean hosts for six years. So we knew that.
I would like to advise the American government that at this particular point [North Korea has] made it very clear to us that they're not about to give up the bomb because they believe that that provides the deterrent to the U.S. coming in and taking over, and particularly for a regime change...
I think what's really important to make sure the escalation doesn't get out of hand, is what I call the 3 No's. So what I'd like to advocate is: We should go in and make sure we get an agreement, not only with North Korea, but China. And the other is the 3 No’s: To say no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export.