One of the world's foremost nuclear weapons experts spoke to dozens of people in Los Alamos on Sunday evening (Jan. 28) about North Korea's development of a nuclear bomb with many times the explosive power of the bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II.
To the crowd that packed a room at the Latter Day Saints Church, Siegfried Hecker, 74, needed little introduction. From 1986-97, he served as the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he began working as a summer graduate student in 1965.
Now an emeritus research professor and senior fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Hecker was introduced as a globe-trotting nuclear aficionado who has been in close contact with the nuclear programs of China, India, Pakistan and Russia as well as North Korea, where he has visited seven times.
Saying U.S. government officials still lean on him for advice, Hecker took a captive audience through 25 years of nuclear buildup in North Korea and what led to the nation's current brinkmanship with the United States. President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un have even traded public jabs with phallic overtones about the size and capabilities of each other's nuclear buttons.
Hecker presented a slide showing a photograph of Kim with a man standing behind him carrying a briefcase that was presumably that country's version of the nuclear football.
"Well, if it is ... it turns out Trump is right," Hecker joked. "Trump's nuclear football is bigger."
But for Hecker, it's not the size of the nuclear briefcase that matters. While he estimates North Korea may have an arsenal of about 25 nuclear bombs, the question remains whether the nation can successfully deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. via an intercontinental ballistic missile. Hecker said he believes North Korea could reach Japan and South Korea with a nuclear warhead, but he cast doubt on whether the North has conducted enough tests to reach the U.S. mainland.
When pressed by "people in Washington" about how long that will take North Korea, Hecker said he guesses it could take another two years.
"They still need a number of missile tests," Hecker said. "You don't just do one test."
As for how the world arrived at such hair-trigger nuclear business, Hecker said President Bill Clinton achieved his goal of not letting North Korea build a bomb with a framework for an agreement. That objective failed under President George W. Bush, whose administration made late overtures at thawing relations. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. goal was to prevent North Korea from building a nuclear arsenal, which failed.
Now President Trump's challenge is to prevent the country from using the bomb.
Hecker has some hope for solutions. Recent talks between North Korea and South Korea, where the winter Olympics will be held in February with the North's participation, help in defusing hair-trigger tensions, he said.
Hecker also sees pragmatism in Kim Jong Un, saying, "He's not only not crazy, he's not stupid; he's actually quite smart."
While it may take many years and a concerted diplomatic effort to try to walk North Korea back toward nonproliferation, Hecker pointed to Kim's recent speech unveiling a two-pronged strategy of military and economic buildup. He compared it to China's liberalization of capital markets that followed that country's acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The same may be true for North Korea, according to Hecker: The country opens up after it it is assured it can protect itself militarily.
And, after all, North Korea's leaders are at some point going to have to solve internal problems, such as hunger, lest the North Korean people rise up against the oppressive regime.
"Kim Jong Un is going to find out at some point you can't eat nuclear weapons," Hecker said.
Justin Horwath can be reached at (505) 986-3017 or email@example.com. This story first published in the Santa New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.