Stanford's North Korea team of Siegfried Hecker and John Lewis keeps the world informed of Pyongyang nuclear march

The ties between Stanford and North Korea go back almost 25 years, during which time the academics have shared news of Pyongyang's nuclear program with Washington.

L.A. Cicero Siegfried Hecker

After the talk, Siegfried Hecker answers questions from seminar attendees.

North Korea is notorious for its secrecy and isolationism, often characterized as a backward dictatorship whose foreign policy boils down to threats and intimidation. But the government is often eager to show off its nuclear operations. And when it is, the job of spreading the word often falls to a few Stanford academics.

"They trust us," said Siegfried Hecker, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. "They trust us to give an honest report of what we see. Of course, they have to take their chances with our assessment."

Hecker recently returned from North Korea with CISAC colleagues John Lewis and Robert Carlin. It was Hecker's fourth trip since 2004, and Lewis' 20th visit since 1986. During their stay in October, the professors were shown a new light-water reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear center, as well as a uranium enrichment facility.

They expected to see an outdated facility based on equipment and designs that were at least 60 years old. Instead, they were surprised by the small, ultra-modern, industrial-scale enrichment facility.

"Our jaws just dropped," Hecker told an audience of FSI colleagues on Monday, recalling the moment he, Lewis and Carlin caught their first glimpse of the 2,000 centrifuges in the uranium enrichment facility. "We looked down and said, 'We can't quite believe it.' "

John Lewis

John Lewis, a professor emeritus of Chinese politics and a CISAC faculty member, has visited North Korea nearly two dozen times in the last few decades.

Forbidden to take any photos, the scholars instead scribbled away in their notebooks, jotting down descriptions of the six-foot-tall centrifuges and the building they were housed in.

The tour was rushed – Lewis joked that their guides kept trying to break for lunch – but it was insightful enough for Hecker to conclude, "There's not much change in the security risk."

"We have to take the threat seriously, but we shouldn't hype it," Hecker said. "How you get from what we saw to hydrogen bombs is not clear to me."

The ties between Stanford and North Korea began in the 1980s, when Lewis presented an academic paper in China that led to an invitation to visit North Korea. After his first trip to North Korea in 1986, he invited some of its foreign ministers to speak at Stanford and was able to arrange visas for their visit.

"Since then, I could do no wrong," said Lewis, a professor emeritus of Chinese politics and a CISAC faculty member. 

Hecker went to North Korea for the first time in 2004, when he joined Lewis on a trip. The two were shown a stock of plutonium, and they returned to the United States to deliver the news to Washington.

"Then the message was: We have plutonium. We have the bomb," Hecker said.

Hecker received his latest invitation to tour the uranium enrichment facility rather easily.

"I just asked them to show it to us," he said. "I said I'd like to see it."

The relationship with North Korean officials has turned Lewis and his fellow academics into unlikely diplomats.

"They would definitely prefer to have these talks and meetings with American officials," Lewis said. "But since American officials won't talk to them, we're the only game in town. We have this weird access."