CISAC's Hecker talks North Korea

Management Science and Engineering Professor Siegfried S. Hecker, an expert on nuclear weapons, recently returned from a visit to North Korea, where he frequently checks on the country's denuclearization process. Hecker has researched extensively in fields of plutonium science-he served as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 through 1997, and remains an emeritus director to the Laboratory. Through a series of Track Two, non-governmental, non-official visits to North Korea, Hecker has worked closely with the previous and current administration's North Korean negotiations team. The Daily spoke with Hecker about his experiences in the country, and his insight into nuclear issues in North Korea and elsewhere.

The Stanford Daily (SD): This is your sixth visit to North Korea. You made one each year from 2004 to 2009. How is this trip different from the previous ones? Any change in North Korean society, diplomacy?

Siegfried Hecker (SH): We visited North Korea from Tuesday, Feb. 24 to Saturday, Feb. 28, and first of all it was quite a relief from Beijing in that the air was quite clear and that the weather was beautiful. In Beijing, it went day to day from being smoggy to being almost impossibly smoggy. So the first thing that we found when we got off at Pyongyang, was the relief of having reasonably clean air.

Even though it was in February and still quite cold, the greatest impression left is that Pyongyang and the people just looked more prosperous this time than I have seen them look in the past. There were more cars on the road; there were more tractors, especially when we got off into the countryside. The people were better dressed.

Particularly, one of the things I look for is color. Years ago, North Korea, like the Soviet Union, was all drab, gray and black. Now you see lots of colors; lots of down jackets, for example, on little children and women with bright colors from yellow to green to red. There was more construction in Pyongyang. We've seen many cranes working on the ground.

All the way around, while some people believed that North Korea and its economy is sinking, we've actually seen it rising and looking better than we've seen in the past. I would say this is the starkest observation of how it struck differently as the previous times.

[Diplomatically,] we've seen a change of attitude since October 2006, when they conducted a nuclear test. Even though, by technical standards, that nuclear test was of limited success, politically for them it was very successful. So the principal attitude change is one of greater confidence on their part. They now tell us, you must deal with us as a nuclear weapon state. We have demonstrated that we have nuclear weapons. We've tested a nuclear weapon, and so we expect to be treated as a state that has nuclear weapons. That confidence will most likely harden their negotiating position. Then, of course, they're also still trying to get a sense of what the new administration will do. They are entering the negotiations with a new administration from what they considered to be a position of strength.

SD: How is North Korea's disablement process of its nuclear facilities going?

SH: In July 2007, they stopped operations and began disabling the nuclear facilities. When I was there almost exactly one year ago, they showed me the nuclear facilities, allowed me to take photographs of the nuclear facilities to demonstrate that they are disabling those facilities that produce the bomb fuel-the plutonium. Disabling the facilities means making it more difficult to restart. They have finished most of the disablement actions, but still need to complete the unloading of the fuel from the nuclear reactor.

They made the decision last year to slow down the unloading because the other parties did not meet their obligations of providing heavy fuel oil or equivalent energy aid. At this point, Japan and South Korea have not finished their obligations, so the slow-down continues.

If the other parties complete their obligations, then I believe North Korea is prepared to complete the disablement. However, the next important step is to dismantle the facilities-that is, take them apart. The terms of that dismantlement have not yet been negotiated. Subsequently, they will need to give up their nuclear weapons. That seems a long way off now based on their comments.

SD: In one of your reports, you discussed the idea of a scientific fingerprint that could deter North Korea from exporting its plutonium. This is very interesting. Can the method have wider use?

SH: One of the concerns with North Korea would be the possibility of them selling or exporting plutonium or nuclear technologies. We know enough about the North Korean plutonium that we have what you call a scientific fingerprint. The makeup of plutonium is determined by the type of reactor and by how long it was in the reactor. We know that about the North Korean plutonium so we can identify North Korea's plutonium. This should be a deterrent for North Korea ever exporting its plutonium because we would know it came from North Korea.

We, of course, don't know whether or not North Korea would ever want to sell its plutonium, but just in case, the fingerprint represents a deterrent. This fingerprinting of plutonium is not as useful for plutonium from the rest of the world, because there are so many different types of reactors and we know less about their fuels and operating schedules.

SD: Do you think the example of North Korea contributes much to a solution of nuclear problems in other regions-for example, Iran?

SH: Right now, the second nuclear hot spot is Iran, and the difference between North Korea and Iran is that North Korea has declared its nuclear program now to be a weapon's program and has demonstrated that at least it can detonate a nuclear device, even though it wasn't fully successful. Iran, I believe, is developing an option for nuclear weapons but under the umbrella of doing it strictly for civilian purposes. They say, "We're not a nuclear weapon state and we have no intention of developing nuclear weapons," but they are continuing to put most of the capabilities in place should they decide to build weapons.

The dividing line between military and civilian is a very fine line, so North Korea and Iran are two very different problems. However, those countries certainly watch each other and look at the diplomatic responses during each other's negotiations.

SD: Are you advising anyone in the new administration?

SH: We work very closely with the U.S. government on this, although our visits are strictly track two visits, which means non-governmental, non-official visits. I don't go as an official, but rather as a Stanford University employee. In the past, we worked very closely with the previous North Korean negotiations team led by Ambassador Christopher Hill. We have now begun to work with the new team that is just being put in place.

SD: During your visits, you met with North Korean officials in education, public health, and explored possibilities of cooperation in these areas. How do you envision these future exchanges?

SH: We met with officials from the ministry of education and one of the economic universities to discuss potential cooperation in educational and technology exchange. In the past, we have also met with officials from the health ministry. So, in addition to working the nuclear issues, we're very interested in trying to engage the North Korean community in a broader set of activities than simply nuclear, and technology is one of those. They're very interested in material science, biotechnology, information technology, and so we explored the possibility of exchange visits and particularly having some Stanford professors go to North Korea and lecture on those topics.

SD: What classes do you currently teach at Stanford? How do you like being a professor at Stanford?

SH: I have a terrific time-that's one of the reasons why I'm at Stanford. The two classes that I teach are both Management Science and Engineering classes. They both focus on the intersection of technology and policy. One is a very large class, MSE 193/293, that Professor William Perry, former Secretary of Defense, and I teach together. We cover everything from history of technology and warfare to modern times and what the current challenges are in the security arena. Both Prof. Perry and I try to teach that in the spirit of our own experiences in these areas. It's a very, very large class-over 200 students.

Then I teach a course by myself in spring that's exactly the opposite. It's a sophomore seminar, MSE93Q, and I have approximately 16 students. The title is "Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Terrorism," and in essence, it's everything nuclear. So I cover in that 10 weeks the whole nuclear problem. I try to get students to understand the basics of nuclear technology and how that interfaces with the policy issue of nuclear weapons, energy, proliferation and terrorism. We cover topics such as: If you develop nuclear energy, why do you have to be concerned about nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation? What is the connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons? That's what we cover in 10 weeks' time, and I've enjoyed the interaction with students immensely.

SD: What do you aim to teach students in the classroom and outside?

SH: Particularly, I want students to understand the intersections of technology and policy. The nuclear field is a very good one to do that because you must understand the basics of nuclear technology to make good policy. And we also now have 60 years of very rich history of the interplay of those two in so many different countries and so many different ways. For example, in both of my classes the students have to write policy papers that show they have at least a basic understanding of the technology, even though they may be social science, political science, international relations majors, but I want them to understand the difference between plutonium and uranium, between fission and fusion, between weapons and energy. That's what I like to be able to contribute to the University.

What I like about the students is how truly interested and dedicated they are and how experienced so many of them are in the international arena. In addition, what's also fascinating is that we have students from all over the world. Whether it is a physics major from Palestine, or somebody who grew up in Iran, Pakistan, India or in China, Vietnam, Africa, they bring a totally different outlook on the world to the table, which then of course helps the rest of the students to understand that this world is much more than just about the United States of America, and Stanford is a great place to do it.