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Topics / Nuclear Threats

The Trump Administration's North Korean Challenge

Q&A with Dr. Siegfried Hecker on how the U.S. administration can avert a nuclear catastrophe on the Korean peninsula.

There is high expectation that the new Trump administration could find some sort of momentum for the revival of the nuclear talks with N. Korea, stalled for the past eight years from the beginning of the Obama administration’s first term in 2009. At the same time, it’s a matter of great interest whether there might open up an avenue for direct talks between the US and N. Korea under the Trump administration as President Trump expressed his willingness to talk with N. Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his presidential campaign last year. America’s noted nuclear scientist Dr. Siegfried Hecker, who visited N. Korea seven times from 2004 to 2010, is very much worried about the N. Korean nuclear problem these days because a nuclear catastrophe could take place on the Korean peninsula in times of military confrontation with the North. He defined the N. Korean challenge of the Trump administration, now engrossed in N. Korea policy review, as the avoidance of a nuclear catastrophe, arguing that President Trump should send a presidential envoy to Pyongyang as well as have direct talks with the North. Mr. Jaemin Jung, SisaIn’s contributing writer in Washington, interviewed Dr. Hecker, an emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

In your recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, you said talking to N. Korea is the best option for the Trump administration. Do you still believe so even when the current N. Korean regime repeatedly declared to the world that it would never give up its nuclear program as a nuclear power state? 

Hecker: Well, I still believe that talking directly, someone from the Trump administration to N. Korea, is essential today. However, what I mean by talking is talk to the regime to make sure that we do not have a nuclear catastrophe. The main reason for talking is to eliminate a potential nuclear confrontation.  The issue of whether or not N. Korea should have nuclear weapons or will ever give up nuclear weapons has to be a much longer-term issue. The immediate issue, I believe, is that we have a nuclear crisis on our hands now, and we must talk in order to make sure that such a confrontation does not happen. So, that’s the reason for talking. 

In other words, direct talk is essential to avoid any misunderstanding or miscalculation on the part of N. Korea?

Hecker: Precisely. The reason for direct talking is to make sure there be no such misunderstanding, potential accidents, or potential escalations to the nuclear arena. Making sure that does not happen, that is the reason for talking now.  

Does it mean that after you build trust from such talking, you then move on to real agenda such as denuclearization?  

Hecker: Yes. So, what I recommend is not only talking but also listening. I think it’s important for the new administration to listen to what the Kim Jong Un regime has to say. By listening we could learn enough to understand how to forge better negotiations, or the long term issue of getting rid of nuclear weapons. 

Regarding the now suspended nuclear talks, many people blame the North for breaking its nuclear agreements with the US or cheating repeatedly. In other words, whether we can trust N. Korea is a big issue here. What is your take? 

Hecker: Well, we don’t have a relationship that provides the underpinning or foundation for trust: trust by America about N. Korea or trust by N. Korea about the United States.  When it comes to negotiations, an agreement could be signed pretty quickly but trust can take years and years to develop. So, as you look back, North Korea has indeed violated many of the agreements that they signed. In some cases, we can say that it was to develop a hedge in case the United States dropped out of the agreement. For example, in the Agreed Framework signed in 1994, the United States did not follow its end as quickly and as fully as it promised to do. North Koreans developed a hedge. They cheated by developing an enriched uranium program. Over the years, the Agreed Framework may have been able to build trust by building two modern light water reactors there. But the Bush administration did not trust North Korea and killed the agreement. Now, 15 years later, there is still no trust. It would have to be developed. I think this would take at least a decade. 

In that respect, trust is something not only N. Korea but the United States should care about, right? 

Hecker: That should be one of the main objectives of whatever next round of negotiations are.  

In your article, you suggested direct talks between the US and N. Korea instead of a multilateral talks like the 6-party talks. In the past, the US tried many times talking directly with the North in Geneva or other places, but failed. Why now? 

Hecker: The Geneva talks in 1994 were successful. They led to the Agreed Framework. The main reason that I proposed direct talks between the US and N. Korea now is, as I mentioned in the beginning, to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. We have to better understand what N. Korea’s nuclear intentions are. What do they expect to get from their nuclear weapons, what are their nuclear policies, what do they have in place to avoid nuclear accidents, what do they have in place to make certain their nuclear weapons are safe and secure? Those kinds of discussions cannot be held in a multilateral forum. The only country that has the opportunity to have those kind of talks with N. Korea is the United States. So, talk to avoid a nuclear catastrophe should be bilateral. Eventually negotiations have to include South Korea, they have to include China, and the 6-Party Talks members Japan and Russia should be involved. So, negotiations will have to be multilateral affair. However, to get to the point of meaningful negotiations, to avoid nuclear catastrophe, there should be bilateral talks. The sooner, the better.  

Can you specify what you mean by ‘nuclear catastrophe’? 

Hecker: What I’m concerned about is that in the past 10 years N. Korea has developed, as best we know because nobody knows for sure, a really threatening nuclear arsenal, perhaps having enough nuclear material of 20-25 nuclear weapons. They continue to try and make those weapons more sophisticated and to be able to mount them on missiles. So, with that level of nuclear firepower, the reason that I worry about nuclear catastrophe is that one could have an accident, there is concern about security and safety of their nuclear weapons, there could be miscalculation on the part of the regime, there could be confrontation and escalation of military activities that could lead to nuclear use. Any use of nuclear devices of any sort on the Korean peninsula is what I call nuclear catastrophe. Today the most important part is to avoid the use or detonation of nuclear device on the Korean peninsula. That has to be the first objective of the Trump administration. 

If the direct talks with the North go well, you said Trump should send a presidential envoy to Pyongyang.  Don’t you think Trump must get N. Korea’s commitment to denuclearization before sending such an envoy? 

Hecker: That approach misunderstands what my concerns are. My most immediate concerns are to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. The issue of denuclearization comes down the road. In other words, it’s a longer-term issue. The concerns I have about the use of nuclear weapons are so great that they require talks now without preconditions. Any future negotiations, of course, must be aimed at eventual denuclearization of North Korea. However, in my opinion, that’s much of a long-term issue. It will not happen over the next few years. I am not talking about negotiations now. I’m talking about talking, talking to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.  

Do you prefer the US talking with N. Korea about it in formal or informal setting? 

Hecker: I am saying at this point a presidential envoy should bring up the topic in a quiet, informal setting, but it has to have the imprimatur of the Trump administration.  

In your NYT Op-Ed piece, you said the nuclear clock keeps ticking, and every six to seven weeks, the North may be able to add another nuclear weapon to its arsenal. Is the nuclear bomb based on plutonium only, or does it include uranium-based bomb, too?  

Hecker: My estimate is not based on plutonium alone. It’s based on both plutonium and highly enriched uranium.  North Korea cannot produce more than one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year. With highly enriched uranium we have great uncertainties. We simply do not know enough about highly enriched uranium program. My best estimates are perhaps as many as six nuclear weapons out of highly enriched uranium per year.  So, it’s possible that N. Korea could make 6-8 nuclear weapons per year. But let me stress the fact again that’s my best estimate, and we don’t know for certain. It’s important to realize that the nuclear crisis is here now. We don’t need to wait until North K. can reach mainland U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile.  

So, how many nuclear weapons do you think the North has now? 

Hecker: Again, all we can do is estimate, and my own estimate is N. Korea may have enough plutonium and highly enriched uranium for perhaps 20-25 nuclear weapons as of the end of 2016. 

Some experts believe freeze on N. Korea’s nuclear capabilities, not denuclearization, is the best realistic option at this point to break the long stalled nuclear talks.  What do you think? 

Hecker: I’ve been promoting for the last eight years or so that we proceed in the following manner: First, halt the program, then roll it back, and then eventually eliminate it. To me, freeze is the same as halt. So, the most important part is to stop the problem from getting worse. However, there are many aspects to what we call halt or freeze. I stated it in the following manner - I call it Three Nos.  We would like N. Korea to make no more bombs (that means, no more plutonium or highly enriched uranium), no better bombs (no more nuclear tests or long-range missile test), and no export of bombs or nuclear material. So, that would be the essence of a freeze or halt.) 

I see many N. Korea experts agree with your proposal as a realistic option to break the current bottleneck in the nuclear talks. Did you get any reaction from the US government? 

Hecker: Well, I wish the American government had supported that eight years ago, because then we’d be in a much better position today. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons we didn’t get there, and now we have to deal with the way things are. Now, the Trump administration comes in, and its challenge is to avoid a nuclear detonation on the Korean peninsula. That’s the challenge, and because of that, it’s a completely different challenge than the Obama administration or the Bush administration faced, and the Trump administration must address that challenge differently. 

So, what is your advice to the Trump administration? 

Hecker: At this point, talk to the N. Koreans to prevent any sort of potential nuclear catastrophe, and then try to listen to the N. Koreans. And make sure they understand our strong commitment to our allies, S. Korea and Japan, and that we care about human rights in N. Korea, and we are committed to the eventual denuclearization of N. Korea. Finally, it will be to N. Korea’s advantage to get back to serious negotiations to eventually denuclearize the Korean peninsula. That’s my advice.  

Photo: Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images