The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Hecker: North Korea now has same nuclear defense as Iran

As tensions spiral upwards on the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s construction of a light water nuclear reactor in addition to its new, sophisticated uranium enrichment facility, allows the regime to claim that its enrichment program is for domestic civilian power needs — as the same argument that Iran makes — according the first Western scientist ...

Photo of Robert Carlin taken by Sig Hecker
Photo of Robert Carlin taken by Sig Hecker
Photo of Robert Carlin taken by Sig Hecker

As tensions spiral upwards on the Korean peninsula, North Korea's construction of a light water nuclear reactor in addition to its new, sophisticated uranium enrichment facility, allows the regime to claim that its enrichment program is for domestic civilian power needs -- as the same argument that Iran makes -- according the first Western scientist allowed to visit the facility.

Sig Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, toured the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea on Nov. 12 and gave an extended briefing on his trip Tuesday at the Korea Economic Institute. He was joined by two other experts who traveled to North Korea this month, former Special Envoys Jack Pritchard and Robert Carlin. Hecker said that he saw 2,000 centrifuges set up in the facility, as well as construction on a 25 megawatt light water nuclear reactor. He could not confirm whether the centrifuges were operational, but emphasized that what he saw represents a huge leap forward for North Korea's nuclear program -- one that carries grave risks and severe implications for regional and international diplomacy.

"My jaw just dropped, I was stunned," Hecker said of the moment he saw the centrifuges. "To see what looked like hundreds and hundreds of centrifuges lined up... it was just stunning. In a clean, modern facility, looking down I said ‘Oh my god, they actually did what they said there were going to do.'"

As tensions spiral upwards on the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s construction of a light water nuclear reactor in addition to its new, sophisticated uranium enrichment facility, allows the regime to claim that its enrichment program is for domestic civilian power needs — as the same argument that Iran makes — according the first Western scientist allowed to visit the facility.

Sig Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, toured the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea on Nov. 12 and gave an extended briefing on his trip Tuesday at the Korea Economic Institute. He was joined by two other experts who traveled to North Korea this month, former Special Envoys Jack Pritchard and Robert Carlin. Hecker said that he saw 2,000 centrifuges set up in the facility, as well as construction on a 25 megawatt light water nuclear reactor. He could not confirm whether the centrifuges were operational, but emphasized that what he saw represents a huge leap forward for North Korea’s nuclear program — one that carries grave risks and severe implications for regional and international diplomacy.

"My jaw just dropped, I was stunned," Hecker said of the moment he saw the centrifuges. "To see what looked like hundreds and hundreds of centrifuges lined up… it was just stunning. In a clean, modern facility, looking down I said ‘Oh my god, they actually did what they said there were going to do.’"

"We must take this seriously, but not overhype it," Hecker continued, noting that by setting up a reactor to make low enriched uranium, the North Koreans have the ability to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for bombs while also claiming the enrichment is for civilian purposes, exactly like Iran.

"The same technology, the same equipment can be used to make HEU. And then what you have is called the Iran problem," he said. "It’s a way of admitting the uranium enrichment program with a cover story… it’s the same cover story that Iran has."

But are the North Koreans getting help from Iran in constructing their facility, especially since it happens to look like the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz?

"What we saw, 2,000 centrifuges… that’s about twice what Iran has done so far. So I’m not sure I would go to Iran if I were North Korea, it might in the future be the other way around," Hecker said. "But I worry about cooperation with Iran."

He said that while the design of the facility was not new, the North Koreans have a new, younger team of scientists working on the design and construction of the new facility, different from older ones he saw in previous trips there. But Hecker’s chief concern is the safety of the facility, the security of the nuclear material, and having weaponized material in the hands of the North Korean military.

"Maybe we should have North Korea as part of WANO (the World Association of Nuclear Operators) to make sure they construct that reactor safely," he said.

Carlin said that it was "ironic" that Pyonyang had constructed a light water reactor, given that the international community had been working for years to build such a plant in North Korea under the auspices of the now-defunct Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. Under that program, the international community would have had control over the nuclear fuel going in and coming out of the reactors, but the effort was shuttered in 2006.

"We’ve been here before, we were going to build a light water reactor, and we were going to have complete control of the fuel," said Carlin. "For various reasons that remain unclear, we scrapped that program….  And it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that we had a bite at this apple once upon a time."

Carlin also said the message from North Korea was clear: They are open to negotiation but are going to keep nuclear weapons for a long time and "we better get used to it" — unless the United States satisfy all of their security concerns and stop what North Korea calls American "hostile" policies. He also warned that Chinese leverage over North Korea was unlikely to affect a positive outcome.

"The Chinese have never said that the North Koreans can’t have a nuclear program to produce electricity. And since the North Koreans say that’s the purpose of their program, I suspect that’s going to be where the bulk of [the Chinese] position is," said Carlin.

Hecker agreed with Carlin and Stanford’s John Lewis, who argued in the Washington Post op-ed section on Monday that "U.S. policymakers need to go back to square one."

"A realistic place to start fresh may be quite simple: accepting the existence of North Korea as it is, a sovereign state with its own interests," Carlin and Lewis wrote.

"For now, the most important thing is don’t let the threat grow," added Hecker, arguing for a containment strategy that would set new red lines for North Korea, namely no new bombs, no bigger bombs, and no exporting of nuclear material.

Hecker said the 5 megawatt plutonium reactor that that operated previously at Yongbyon for years is now shut down, as is the reprocessing facility for plutonium. He estimated that there are 24 to 48 kilograms of plutonium in North Korea that were produced from that reactor, enough to make 4 to 8 bombs.

The North Koreans told Hecker that they wanted to complete construction on the light water reactor by 2012, but Hecker said that was unrealistic: Most projects in North Korea are scheduled to be completed in 2012 because that’s the 100-year anniversary of former dictator Kim Il Sung‘s birthday.

So why did the North Koreans decide to reveal their nuclear reactor now? Hecker didn’t know for sure, but speculated that the construction would have been detected soon enough, so Pyongyang wanted to break the news on its own terms.

Pritchard speculated that the exchange of artillery fire with South Korea last night was not related to the revelation of the new reactor and the new uranium enrichment efforts.

"I do not think there is any connection at all" between North Korea’s revelations regarding its nuclear program and the flare up Monday night, said Pritchard. But he warned that either way, there won’t be an appetite to bring up the issue before the U.N. Security Council, as was done after North Korea sank the South Korean ship the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. 

"I don’t think we will find it going to the UNSC or additional sanctions for this," he said. "The Cheonan was a dastardly event. And the difficulty the international community had coming out with an unambiguous statement, it suggest to me that’s not the route we’re going to repeat here now."

Hecker’s report on his trip can be found here.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.