Stanford Professor and Director Emeritus of Los Alamos Siegfried Hecker recently returned from his seventh trip in as many years to North Korea. The purpose of his visits has been to assess that nation’s nuclear program and to seek ways to defuse the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula. It is unfortunate that the extensive press coverage of his trip has focused on the parts that feed American fears. This is dangerous because, in a guest lecture to my seminar last February, Prof. Hecker suggested a program to improve American national security with respect to North Korea, but noted that it was impossible to implement because of domestic political considerations. Media coverage that reinforces American fears and myths therefore harms our national security.
When I emailed Prof. Hecker about some inaccurate reporting on his most recent trip, he told me to “check the CISAC website for the real story.” CISAC is Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, which he co-directs, and I located his trip report there. Here are some important excerpts that have received inadequate attention:
These facilities [for uranium enrichment] appear to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power, not to boost North Korea’s military capability. …
Pyongyang has clearly stated that it will retain its nuclear weapons as a deterrent so long as U.S. hostile policies persist. North Korean officials with whom we met on this trip made it abundantly clear that there will be no denuclearization without a fundamental change in U.S. – North Korean relations. In the Daedalus article and a subsequent article, I make the case that Pyongyang has seriously pursued nuclear electricity; it has both practical and symbolic importance. It views LWRs as the modern path to nuclear power. It was prepared several times in the past to trade its bomb-fuel producing reactors for LWRs. [Light Water Reactors are better for making electricity and not as good for making bombs as North Korea’s earlier Magnox reactors] … They can claim with some justification that the uranium enrichment program is an integral step toward an LWR and nuclear electricity. …
It is clear that waiting patiently for Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party talks on terms acceptable to the United States and its allies will exacerbate the problem. A military attack is out of the question. Tightening sanctions further is likewise a dead end, particularly given the advances made in their nuclear program and the economic improvements we saw in general in Pyongyang. The only hope appears to be engagement. The United States and its partners should respond to the latest nuclear developments so as to encourage Pyongyang to finally pursue nuclear electricity in lieu of the bomb. That will require addressing North Korea’s underlying insecurity.
As noted by Hecker, it is wishful thinking to expect North Korea to accept unilateral nuclear disarmament, especially in light of repeated threats by the United States. That wishful thinking is so pervasive that is has become an effective American requirement for restarting talks, which means no talks. In contrast to that pie-in-the sky thinking, in his guest lecture to my seminar, Prof. Hecker laid out what he called “the three NO’s:”
1. No exports of North Korean technology, thereby preventing further proliferation.
2. No more bombs, meaning no more plutonium production.
3. No better bombs, meaning no more nuclear testing.
Based on his visits to North Korea, Prof. Hecker thought that these goals were achievable if the United States will re-engage the North, temporarily put aside demands that it unilaterally disarm, and treat Pyongyang with some respect. If we insist that progress requires the North to do what we ourselves would never contemplate, the outcome will be more proliferation (particularly if economic sanctions make the North even more desperate for foreign exchange), more North Korean bombs, and better ones at that. Hecker pointed out that the current North Korean arsenal is too crude to be confidently delivered by missiles, so no more testing would be a big plus from our point of view.
In that same seminar, Hecker pointed out that if the Agreed Framework had been adhered to, the North probably would not have any nuclear weapons today. When they shut down plutonium production in 1994 under that agreement, the best intelligence estimates are that they probably did not have enough plutonium for even one weapon, and at most enough for two. Given that it took two tests for them to achieve a reasonable explosive yield, even the high end of the intelligence estimate was much less dangerous than the current situation, where they have 4-8 weapons of a proven design. And, as bad as that is, it is a lot less dangerous than the situation we will face without a resumption of negotiations.
Hecker also noted that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that diplomacy has failed with the North, even with the eventual failure of the Agreed Framework, we have gotten much more from diplomacy than they did. As part of that agreement, the North stopped construction of (and has since started to demolish) a much larger nuclear reactor that was close to completion. If that reactor had gone on line, Hecker estimates the North would have 100 warheads by now, instead of 4-8.
While both sides bear some responsibility for the failure of the Agreed Framework, President Bush’s putting the North in his Axis of Evil, cutting off heavy fuel oil (required to make up for the loss of electric power from the almost completed reactor), and his invasion of Iraq (creating an example of what can happen to non-nuclear members of the Axis of Evil) played important roles. To quote from Hecker’s Daedelus article:
The Bush administration killed the Agreed Framework for domestic political reasons and because it suspected Pyongyang of cheating by covertly pursuing uranium enrichment. Doing so traded a potential threat that would have taken years to turn into bombs for one that took months, dramatically changing the diplomatic landscape in Pyongyang’s favor.
It’s time to stop basing our national security on wishful thinking and deal with the cards in our hand. It is not as good as the hand we had ten years ago, but that is largely our own fault. Let’s stop repeating those mistakes and start improving our national security.
Prof. Hecker’s trip report
Prof. Hecker’s Daedelus article
Prof. Hecker’s National Academy of Engineering article with Chaim Braun
My class notes on Iran and North Korea
My class notes on nuclear weapons in general