An American nuclear scientist who visited a secret nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, claims that Kim Jong Un’s regime is not bluffing when it comes to the dictatorship’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
As he recounted in an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday on CBS, Sig Hecker — who was once in charge of helping design nuclear weapons for the U.S. — was invited to North Korea and shown evidence of the country’s nuclear capabilities.
Hecker was at one time the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is known as the “birthplace of the American atomic bomb,” according to CBS.
Hecker described his shock at being invited to North Korea, and said he was also shocked when the U.S. government allowed him to travel to the infamously hostile nation.
“I was immensely surprised by how much they showed me and with the openness with which they showed and explained that to me,” he said.
“There’s no way in the world they’re going to let me in. By the way, I also thought the U.S. government wouldn’t let me go but it turns out I was wrong on both accounts.”
Hecker first visited Yongbyon in 2004. At that point, the North Koreans were believed to be operating a small nuclear reactor.
While describing the facility as “primitive,” Hecker pointed out he thought it was functional.
“I would call it primitive but functional. And in fact, all of the instrumentation sort of reminded me when I first got to Los Alamos in 1965 you know, no modern electronics or anything of that nature,” he said.
“This is a reactor that was not very good for producing electricity, but it was very good for making plutonium.”
Indeed, the North Korean officials would go on to prove just that.
After seeing the reactor, Hecker said he was taken to a building where the North Koreans claimed to be turning used fuel from the reactor into weapons-grade plutonium.
“They just showed me the facility and basically said, ‘Look, you have to believe us, we extracted the plutonium,'” Hecker said.
CBS’ David Martin then asked, “Did you believe them?”
“The answer was yes, but I didn’t let them think that I believed them,” Hecker responded.
Hecker went on to say that the complex’s director offered to show him plutonium.
“You know plutonium when you see it,” Martin said.
“Plutonium by itself is sort of a silvery color if it’s not oxidized,” Hecker replied. “If it rusts, oxidizes a little bit, it sort of turns gray and black and this stuff was gray and black.”
Hecker elaborated on the weight and heat of the plutonium, further indicating that the product was legitimate.
“So I said … I’d like to hold the jar with the metal in it. And they allowed me to hold it. So what do I learn from holding? Well, first of all plutonium is dense. … It ought to be heavy. It was. The other thing plutonium is radioactive. So it … Glass jar ought to be warm and it was warm.”
The question remains, though — Why would the North Korean regime want to confirm the news of its nuclear capabilities to the U.S.?
“They wanted to show Sig that they really did have plutonium,” said CBS consultant Robert Carlin, a former intelligence analyst for the CIA and State Department.
When Martin asked Carlin why any country would so willingly hand over what would surely be one of the regime’s most guarded military secrets, Carlin simply asserted that it was the only way anyone would believe North Korea.
“Nobody would believe them otherwise, right? People would say, ‘Oh, they’re just posturing. Oh, it’s propaganda.’ So how are you going to convince the Americans?” Carlin said.
“You get an expert who knows plutonium when he sees it and you, you hand it to him. You say, ‘Here it is. What do you think?'”
Hecker returned to North Korea in 2010. At that time, a different part of the base was revealed to him, where 2,000 centrifuges were on display.
According to The U.K. Daily Mail, it was suspected that uranium was being manifested for use in another type of chemical bomb.
CBS reported that U.S. intelligence experts believe North Korea may currently posses enough material for 60 weapons.
However, that number is much larger than an estimate from David Albright, the director of the Institute for Science and International Security. Albright suspects the North Koreans have between 13 and 30 nuclear weapons.
But as Hecker pointed out, its less about how many they have, but rather how small North Korean scientists can make the weapons.
During his interview with Martin, the pair are shown viewing a television monitor. Looking at a spherical object on the screen, Hecker hypothesized that the object was a “spherical fission bomb” — also known as an atomic bomb.
“It looks like a simple bomb. However, what I found most important about this is the size of it. It looks to be about 60 centimeters,” Hecker said.
Sixty centimeters is small enough to fit on some of North Korea’s missiles, according to CBS.
Hecker acknowledged that the North Koreans must be taken seriously.
“They’re going to get there, you know, that’s, that’s one thing you can count on. We’ve tried to sanction them into submission. They’ve not submitted. They just keep testing and keep evolving.”
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