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

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

The second major bloc that dealt with North Korea was China, but this was also a time when China was worried much more about its own economic rise than it was about the ideology around the world and the Chinese actually hooked up with the South Koreans because they felt that that was a better way to go economically. So North Korea at that point felt it really had no friends left and it actually reached across the United States in order to try to strike a deal.

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Well, that was difficult to do but eventually a deal was struck in 1994. The essence of that deal was that the North Koreans would freeze their plutonium program – and again I’ll tell you more about that. In return the US would actually make sure the North Koreans get two light water reactors, the ones that are better for electricity than for bombs and that we would normalize relationships with them. Well, it turns out that was a rocky marriage from 1994 to 2002, and in 2002 the marriage came apart because that’s the first time the Bush administration actually sent representatives to Pyongyang and instead of sort of holding out the peace branch, they accused the North Koreans of having cheated on this agreement. North Koreans walked away and in 2002 actually began bomb production. And then that continued for the rest of the Bush administration and indeed, along the way, the North Koreans not only were able to extract plutonium from their reactor products but they actually conducted a first test in 2006 and a second test in May of 2009.

So, the North Korean nuclear story is a story of 50 years in the making. It’s not something that you do overnight. It’s 50 years in the making and it vacillated back and forth as to whether it was more civilian or a more defense, and I’ve written a paper on this subject published in the Journal Dædalus in the winter of 2010 which actually looks at the simple connectivity between technical capability and between political intent.

So, let me just give you a little premiere on the bomb because in order for you to appreciate what plutonium means, what highly enriched uranium means, you need at least to know these essentials and if I insult, some of your technical – sorry – but I thought I should give you that as background. There are essentially two paths to the bomb and if you look at the periodic table, the two practical fissile materials are uranium and actually only one isotope of uranium, that is 235 that occurs only seven tenths of a percent of natural uranium, and the other one being plutonium which is principally man-made from reactors. And so the two paths are — let’s look on the right hand side first. And that is, you take the natural fissile material, uranium-235, and you essentially throw away all of the rest of what you find in mother nature, that is the 238 isotope of uranium. You do that by a process called enrichment, essentially just concentrating one isotope.

As you might imagine, that’s somewhat difficult to do because they’re both uranium, they both have the same chemical properties, in essence. So you have to take advantage of one being just a little heavier than the other. And that’s what you do in a centrifuge. So you turn the uranium into a gas, you spin it very, very fast. The light stuff stays on the inside. The heavy stuff goes to the outside. And you just keep doing this over and over and over and that’s where the term centrifuges cascades come from. And so, that was what was done. Actually doing the Manhattan project days in the United States, we did it by a different technique called gaseous diffusion, but today the technique of choice is the centrifuge. And what you see on the right hand side are just rows of these centrifuges.