Siegfried Hecker on recent nuclear and missile tests by North Korea

Siegfried Hecker

Siegfried Hecker

On Monday, May 25, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, commonly referred to as North Korea, conducted an underground nuclear test and also test-fired a short-range missile. The actions were unanimously condemned by the United Nations Security Council and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. On Tuesday, North Korea responded by firing two more short-range missiles. These tests followed the April launch of a long-range rocket, which also provoked Security Council condemnation.

Siegfried Hecker is well versed in the issues raised by North Korea's actions. He has spent much of his career working in nuclear science and is director emeritus of Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is currently co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, as well as a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a research professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering.

Hecker's research has focused on nuclear issues, including plutonium science, nuclear weapons policy and nuclear security challenges such as nonproliferation and counterterrorism. On Tuesday, he spoke with Stanford Report about North Korea's recent actions.

Is this saber-rattling or a serious threat?

I think North Korea is very serious. They have indicated that they are going to strengthen their nuclear deterrent, and this nuclear test fits into improving their technical capabilities.

When you say "nuclear deterrent," is that actually what they intend to develop, or do you think they have aggressive intentions?

I use the term deterrent because that is always what the North Koreans have told me. They have essentially never referred to their nuclear arsenal as such. They have always referred to their deterrent and the need to strengthen their deterrent, typically blamed on hostile actions by the United States.

Quite frankly, this time there really weren't any hostile actions by the United States. There was a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the North Korean long-range rocket test [in April]. We know it was a rocket test for sure, and just from that condemnation, North Korea walked away [from ongoing talks].

How imminent might any danger be to North Korea's neighbors?

North Korea is saying, "Look, we need to protect ourselves against you, particularly against the United States." It has not threatened to use its weapons against other states. However, as you might imagine, states like Japan get quite nervous when you have a combination of long-range rocket tests and additional nuclear tests that would allow North Korea to get closer to miniaturizing its nuclear warheads. So even though North Korea doesn't threaten directly, nevertheless, that is clearly interpreted as a threat to countries such as Japan.

What do you see as the greatest danger from these tests?

My own view is that the greatest danger is nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran. Both of them have nuclear ambitions. Both of them have some, but not full, capabilities in the nuclear missile arena, and cooperation could enhance the capabilities of each country. So I am concerned that these recent actions and that sort of cooperation could further destabilize the Middle East and certainly threaten peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

We also know North Korea has exported nuclear technologies and that it built a reactor for Syria, covertly. So the greatest concerns are direct nuclear cooperation with Iran or exporting nuclear technology to other parts of the world.

Based on your knowledge of the state of both nuclear programs, how rapidly could Iran reach a point where it had a nuclear weapon?

So far, what Iran has done is develop a nuclear weapons option, which is to put all the pieces in place should it decide to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea of course has already exercised that option and has tested twice.

Iran, because of the progress it has made in uranium centrifuge technology, could possibly in one to three years' time be able to make enough highly enriched uranium and produce a primitive nuclear weapon. It would still be years away from being able to miniaturize such a warhead and be able to mount it on a long-range missile. So it is a few years away from a primitive device, if it chooses to go that way, and quite a few years away from a more sophisticated device.

From 2005 to this February, you have visited North Korea six times. Have you seen a change in the leadership's attitude over the course of those visits?

I would say that it has been cyclical. Over those years there were several times when it looked like negotiations were going to pay off. North Korea had actually signed a denuclearization agreement in September of 2005, and then it slipped back and forth over the intervening years.

And now, since about last fall, their diplomatic line has hardened substantially. It had certainly hardened when I was there in February for a visit. They pretty much foreshadowed what is actually going on now.

When North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, talks began involving Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States negotiating with North Korea. Could those talks still succeed?

I have great hopes that the combination of the five parties, and particularly the United States and China, could persuade North Korea to come back and actually reverse its nuclear program. So I don't think all is lost yet.