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Home » What I Saw in North Korea and Why it Matters by Siegfried Hecker (Transcript)

What I Saw in North Korea and Why it Matters by Siegfried Hecker (Transcript)

Siegfried S. Hecker

Full Transcript of Siegfried Hecker on What I Saw in North Korea and Why it Matters at Google TechTalks Conference. This event took place on March 28, 2011.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – What I Saw in North Korea and Why it Matters


Chris: A group of us here at Google are working to understand what our policy should be — our position should be on nuclear energy, with respect to global warming, climate change, renewable energy and dwindling fossil fuel supplies. And we’ve been reaching out to various experts to understand the problems of waste and safety and proliferation. And in a conversation we had several weeks ago with Sieg Hecker, I learned — I had a dramatic kind of change in perception of what North Korea was and why they did what they did. And so we invited Sieg to come and share that with a greater audience. So please welcome, Siegfried Hecker. He’ll tell you about his visits to North Korea and why countries build atomic bombs. Thank you.

Siegfried Hecker – Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University

Thank you very much, Chris. Ladies and gentlemen, both of those of you who are here and also at the remote Google sites, I welcome you and I thank you for inviting me to give a Google seminar.

As Chris had indicated, I’ve been talking to a number of the folks from Google about nuclear futures and nuclear energy. And of course, nuclear energy, it turns out, is the story of promise and peril. And I’ve worked on both of those aspects for a good part of my professional life. I spent 34 years at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the bomb. And I was director of that laboratory for about a dozen years. And then a little over five years ago I came out to Stanford where I continue my work on what I call nuclear risk reduction. And that is mostly the worry about the peril side of nuclear energy. And what I focus on are principally issues of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons policy, nuclear proliferation, that is the spread of nuclear weapons around the world and nuclear terrorism. But of course all of that is intimately connected to nuclear energy and I was set to give a talk last week which I did at Purdue University which I titled, “Nuclear Promise and Nuclear Peril.” And of course, what everyone had on their mind with nuclear peril was Fukushima, Daiichi in Japan.

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But what I’m going to focus on today is mostly the issue of proliferation of nuclear weapons and particularly, North Korea. In my discussions with my colleagues here at Google, I’ve been telling them pieces of the North Korea story and so they were interested to sort of hear the whole North Korea story. Well, I won’t tell you the whole North Korea story but I’m going to try to give you my version of North Korea. The photo that you actually see on here is in Beijing airport of an airplane, it’s actually an Ilyushin, a Russian aircraft, of my getting ready to go into North Korea, into Pyongyang. We have to fly in through Beijing and then also fly back out through Beijing.

And what I’m going to talk about today is to give you a sense of the whole program and that is, how did North Korea get the bomb? What does it actually have? Why did they get the bomb? What is the threat from the North Korean nuclear program? And then what do we do now? And then hopefully, if I leave enough time, I will also try to give you sort of a photo parade of North Korea because I’ve been allowed to take a lot of photos, and it looks very differently than what you see on American television. So, that’s what I will do.

So, let me start with how did North Korea get the bomb? It began with the Soviets’ Atoms for Peace Program. The Atoms for Peace Program was initiated by President Eisenhower and the United States in 1953 and the essence was that at that time only the US, the Russians, and the Brits had nuclear weapons. All of the technology was highly classified and President Eisenhower said, “We will share nuclear technology with those countries in the world who are willing to foreswear nuclear weapons”, in other words, not to pursue nuclear weapons but instead develop Atoms for Peace, for civilian purposes.

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The Soviets also followed suit and so, as you might imagine since the world was divided into two, sort of US and Soviet blocs, the Soviets then helped the countries in Eastern Europe and many of the others including China initially, and including North Korea to develop peaceful nuclear energy. So, the North Koreans were trained in Soviet universities. They were trained in Soviet nuclear centers. The Soviets built the first small research reactor in Yongbyon which is still currently the nuclear facility in North Korea. It’s about 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang. And that was the beginning but it was strictly meant to help the North Koreans with peaceful applications of atomic energy.

However, for those of you who know much about Korea, they eventually trust no one. They want to go their own path and they did go their own path in the nuclear arena. And in the 1970s having learned much, having set up their own nuclear engineering programs, nuclear physics programs at the university, they decided and laid out a very ambitious program for nuclear reactors and at the same time, in my opinion, they actually chose a path to the North Korean nuclear reactor program that would also allow them to develop the option for nuclear weapons and I will say more about that.

And then for a number of very interesting but very complex political reasons in the early 1990s when the North Korean world first came apart that was the first time they actually worked directly with the United States in order to take this nuclear program that they were building up and essentially freeze the bomb component of that program. The reason they reached across the United States was that, as you remember, in the end of 1991 the Soviet Union came apart. When that happened here was a very strong and supportive ally of North Korea. Not only the Soviet Union but the Soviet Bloc and you find today strong connections from Eastern Europe to North Korea. And the Russians essentially deserted them overnight and so the financial help, the technical help, everything that was there beforehand went away.

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