NK estimated to have ability to produce 7 nuclear bombs a year
By Kim Jae-kyoung
A world-renowned nuclear scientist said that U.S. President Donald Trump must to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by sending an envoy to Pyongyang to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.
"I believe the first talks should be bilateral and informal by a presidential envoy talking directly to Kim Jong-un," said Siegfried S. Hecker, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University, in an interview.
"I believe both Seoul and Beijing would support such talks. These talks may then also help to build the foundation for renewed multilateral negotiations, which, first and foremost must involve South Korea, as well as China," he added.
Hecker, the co-director of CISAC from 2007 to 2012, has visited North Korea several times to assess the plutonium program at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center since 2004.
He stressed that it is most important to convey the message that nuclear weapons cannot be used under any circumstances.
"There is no such thing as a limited nuclear war. Any explosion of a nuclear device on the Korean Peninsula is a catastrophe of indescribable proportions," he said.
The internationally recognized expert in plutonium science, global threat reduction and nuclear security said that the Trump administration and the new South Korean government face the challenge of avoiding a nuclear detonation on the Korean Peninsula.
He believes that such an incident could result from a miscalculation or overconfidence by the Kim Jong-un regime as well as an accident with the nuclear weapons in the North.
"A conventional confrontation may turn nuclear with an inexperienced leader in charge," he said. "Or, in the case of instability in the North, who will control the nuclear weapons? These are serious concerns that must be addressed now," he added.
Hecker, who served as the director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, from 1986 to 1997, estimated that North Korea, although he is uncertain, may have sufficient material for 20 to 25 nuclear weapons.
NK's nuclear capabilities evolving
He explained that the size of its nuclear arsenal depends primarily on how much plutonium and highly enriched uranium North Korea has produced.
"The sophistication of the arsenal depends primarily on nuclear testing. With five nuclear tests conducted over 10 years, North Korea is likely able to produce nuclear devices small enough to fit on missiles that can reach all of South Korea and Japan," he said.
He also estimated that the totalitarian country can produce sufficient plutonium and highly enriched uranium for six to seven bombs per year.
"However, all estimates are uncertain because we know little about the North's capacity to produce highly enriched uranium since it is not possible to monitor such facilities from afar," he said.
In his view, the world does not have to accept the reclusive country as a "nuclear weapons state," but it must be treated as a country with a nuclear arsenal.
"Whether we like it or not, North Korea is a country with nuclear weapons," he said. "The final aim is to have a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, but that will take time. It will have to be done in sequence of halt, roll back and then eliminate."
However, Hecker dismissed North Korea's claim that it has the capability to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) all the way to the U.S. mainland.
"I do not believe North Korea is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile today. It is working on developing such a capability, but it will likely take another five years or so," he said.
Hecker explained that it has not demonstrated all the aspects of necessary rocket technology or the ability to make a nuclear warhead small enough to be able to survive atmospheric reentry.
"Besides, to actually launch a nuclear warhead on an ICBM you must have complete confidence that it will not blow up on the launch pad," he added. "They cannot have such confidence based on their missile launch history."