American nuclear scientist given access to North Korea’s nuclear program: ‘I was immensely surprised’

In an effort to prove to the United States that its nuclear weapons program was legitimate and advanced, North Korea recently gave access to an American nuclear scientist who was impressed — and startled — by what he’d seen

In 2004.

Sig Hecker, a former Los Alamos nuclear weapons engineer, was taken by the North Koreans to Yongbyon where they had been operating a small nuclear reactor. He says he was shown a sample of weapons-grade plutonium after he was shown a primitive reactor that was not good for much except enriching plutonium.

“Plutonium by itself is sort of a silvery color if it’s not oxidized. If it rusts, oxidizes a little bit, it sort of turns gray and black and this stuff was gray and black,” he said.

“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.”

Robert Carlin, a former CIA and State Department expert on North Korea, said that while most nations would want to keep such programs secret, it was obvious that Pyongyang wanted to prove the value of their program to an American scientist who could verify it.

How did that change the way the U.S. viewed the North’s program?

“It changed from one of ‘we don’t know exactly what they have, if they have enough to make anything’ to the fact that they actually could have four to six bombs,” Hecker said.

Other U.S. experts on Korea including David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, said it was believed that the North Koreans did not possess gas centrifuges to enrich the uranium to bomb-grade levels. He said in talks with North Korean officials, they would vehemently deny the country had them, even to the point of getting angry.

But in 2010, when Hecker was invited back to North Korea to view progress on the program, he was taken to a building housing gas centrifuges used to manufacture weapons-grade materials.

In all, he went seven times; each time he was told or shown a little more about the North Korean program.

They knew he would report all he had seen to U.S. intelligence.

The last time he viewed the building with the gas centrifuges, the 2,000 “modern” centrifuges he first saw had doubled.

Other experts are certain that building is not the only one containing centrifuges located in North Korea.

View the entire report here.

(Analyst comment: This report by CBS News’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday was fascinating. No question that President Trump and his entire national security team knows all of this as well, and is considering it as part of his decision-making process on whether to strike North Korea.)

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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