Cindy Kelly: It is Monday, May 14. I am in Palo Alto at Stanford University. I have with me Siegfried Hecker, and I would like him to say his name and spell it, please.
Siegfried Hecker: I am Siegfried Hecker. S-I-E-G-F-R-I-E-D H-E-C-K-E-R.
Kelly: Great. Now, we have a very big agenda for you today in terms of the topics, but let’s start with who you are. Tell us a little bit about where you were born and when and your early childhood and how you became interested in science.
Hecker: Well, that’s a complicated story, as it turns out, because I was born during the Second World War, October 1943. It turns out for a whole bunch of strange reasons, I was actually born in Poland. My parents were Austrian. My father was drafted into the German Army after what’s called the Anschluss by Germany, the annexation. He was sent to work on the Russian front, actually in an army factory. The women and children were allowed to go along. So my mother went along. It turns out I was born there in Poland, what today would be very close to the Ukrainian border. At that time, of course, it was part of the Third Reich because Hitler had moved to the East. I was born there, October 1943. About four months later, the women and children had to get out of there because the Russians were pushing the Germans back.
My mother tried to take us back. She actually grew up in what today is Bosnia. At that time, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It wasn’t possible to go back to Bosnia because the Serbs had taken over. The Serbs didn’t like the Germans. So for the next about 18 months or so, with me being a newborn, she took us around at that time – Bosnia, which she didn’t quite get back to – but she wound up in Croatia and Slovenia. Until about August to September ‘45, she wound up close to Ljubljana in a little mining town. Then from there, at the end of the war, she went back to Austria proper and that’s where I grew up, from 1945 through 1956.
My father, it turns out, never returned from the Russian front. My mother remarried, and her family was sort of spread all over Europe after the war, the ones that made it through the war. Some of them came to the United States. My mother said, “Let’s go to America.” So we did. In December of ‘56 I wound up in Cleveland, Ohio of all places. The reason we wound up there was because several of the relatives that had come from Europe – actually my mother’s sister, brother, and then also my older brother who had turned 18 – he came to America to sort of try his life in a different country. We wound up in Cleveland.
I wound up going to school in an inner city high school called East High School in Cleveland, Ohio. From ‘56, actually junior high school, then high school, then in 1961 I graduated from Cleveland East High School. I always was good with numbers. I was good in mathematics. I really liked mathematics. By the time 1961 came around, when it was time to think about going to college – and no one in my family had ever gone to college before. Since I was good with numbers, liked science, at that time in the 1950s the big thing in science was to be a nuclear physicist. That’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to study nuclear physics. I wound up for a number of reasons going to school locally because we couldn’t really afford it. I managed to get enough of a scholarship to pay for tuition and I lived at home, too. At that time, it was called the Case Institute of Technology. By the time I finally finished all my degrees, it was called Case Western Reserve University, which is what it is today.
I started at Case in September of 1961. I started in nuclear physics. After a couple of years of studying physics and recognizing that my family was not going to be able to support me past a bachelor’s degree, I decided I had better—I am not learning anything that I could get a job with in physics. I switched to metallurgy and materials in my junior year and then graduated with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgy and materials. But in the meantime, I was not only learning practical things, but also really fascinating scholarly things about metallurgy, materials, physics, chemistry. Then the really big change for me happened after I finished my bachelor’s degree. There were two of the biggest things in my life. One of them was I got married to my wife, now almost 53 years.
Then at the same time, we took a honeymoon with my work at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, as it was called. Once I got to Los Alamos – and that’s another fascinating story, because you might imagine, how does somebody get a clearance that more or less almost just got off the boat, not too long ago? But anyway, the system worked in such a way that I was able to get clearance in less than three months. I wound up getting a job at Los Alamos and that pretty much took care of my trajectory. That I was going to be in science for the rest of my life. Although when I first came to Los Alamos, I was still very much thinking that eventually I am going to be a college professor. That’s really what I wanted to do. One of the attractions of Los Alamos in 1965 is it’s ‘Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory operated by the University of California.’ I thought that was a pretty good deal. You know, I’ve got some university credentials.
We spent the summer of 1965 in Los Alamos. That’s when I first got introduced to plutonium actually. It was within a week or so after I got to Los Alamos. The senior people there took me into the laboratory, into the glove boxes and there I was with a smock and glove boxes and handing plutonium back and forth. I found out about these incredible mysteries of how little we really understood about plutonium. So that was the first introduction to Los Alamos. Particularly Los Alamos in 1965 was just one of the finest scientific institutions in the whole wide world.
From there, I went back to graduate school at Case, got a degree, a master’s degree still from Case, a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University. Then in 1968, I was newly minted. I was going to be a university professor. But it turns out Los Alamos interceded again. They invited me to come back and do a postdoc. We had enjoyed it so much. So I actually decided, ‘Well, I will take a little detour from professorship.’ I did actually have an offer from a university, actually at Urbana-Champaign at the University of Illinois. But I went back to Los Alamos and I did two years of postdoc.
Then again, I was going to do a university professorship. However, at that time, General Motors got in the way. I thought, ‘Well, that would be fascinating. I’ve got national lab experience. I know what universities are like, having gone to school there. Maybe I can learn something about industry.’ So I went to General Motors Research Lab, just outside of Detroit, Michigan in Warren, Michigan. I spent three years there and that was absolutely fascinating. I enjoyed it immensely. Of course, I didn’t do any nuclear things at all, but I was worried about automobiles. Particularly my interest was in understanding how metals behave and deform. So I studied the fundamentals of metal deformation and at the same time worried about practical things like how you stamp an auto body. Particularly at that time – this was 1970. I was there from 1970 to ‘73. We were thinking about why don’t we make the car bodies out of aluminum instead of steel? That weighs a lot less. That was during the energy crisis.
I had a great time at General Motors, but Los Alamos came calling again. I went back to Los Alamos a third time in late August of 1973 and then wound up staying at Los Alamos for many years. The interest in science – I sort of was there initially because of mathematics and then eventually it just sort of grew on me through the university, through Los Alamos, through General Motors, back to Los Alamos.
Kelly: What a career, all in a few years. You were there less than ten years before they tapped you to be the director of the laboratory. Is that correct?
Hecker: When I went back in ‘73, then I went back as a staff scientist. Again, I just had a fascinating time. I still went back to work on plutonium, but then it was also the first time I really got involved in the nuclear weapons program because I didn’t go to Los Alamos to build bombs. Actually, my career at Los Alamos was really shaped by one of the early introductions. That was the second director of Los Alamos after J. Robert Oppenheimer, Norris Bradbury. He gave a welcoming speech when I first got to Los Alamos. I remember him standing up there on the stage. He said, “At Los Alamos, we don’t build bombs to kill people. We build bombs for the political leaders to buy time to solve our problems in other ways.” That sort of guided my whole career since that time.
When I was there as a postdoc, I never worked on anything that was nuclear weapons related. When I came back in ‘73, I did. Related essentially to plutonium to generally nuclear weapons. The national security, the nuclear weapons part, also sort of grew on me with time. At first that’s not why I went there. Then what really hit me: this was a chance for me to serve my country. I never served in the military. It was a way that I could do my share for the country. So let me back up and say that I didn’t go to Los Alamos for the weapons business, but then I sort of gradually got drawn into that, sort of feeling it was my responsibility. It was my ability to pay back the country.
And particularly as I thought about it at that time, being still very young, I came to the country in 1956. A little over five years later, in April of ‘62, I got my U.S. citizenship. You have to wait five years. A few months after that, I got my U.S. citizenship – so then in 1962. In 1965, lo and behold, they actually give me a clearance to be able to look at the most secret of secrets. I thought that was just incredible. My country trusted me. So then it was my turn to pay back. I did get involved, particularly on the plutonium, the materials part, that I really understood something about.
But I also became involved in lots of the other programs. For example, one of the most fascinating, one of the most demanding, was actually what you could call nuclear batteries. That is using plutonium-238, which is a different isotope than the one you use for weapons, which is plutonium-239. Plutonium-238, you use it because it’s a heat source. If you turn that heat into electricity, you essentially have a nuclear battery. It’s those nuclear batteries that power all the far space missions. Everything you have ever seen – the photographs, from the Saturn rings, from Pluto, everything is powered by plutonium-238 radioisotope heat sources. I worked right in the middle of that program during the 1970s. It was just absolutely fascinating.
And then in 1986, I wound up becoming director of Los Alamos. That was absolutely not by design because that’s not what I had ever hoped to do, wanted to do, dreamt about, thought about, but somehow it came about. In 1985, I had done a number of management related jobs. Again, not necessarily because that’s what I wanted to do in life. I just wanted to do science and technology, but nevertheless, for one reason or another, I thought, “Well, it’s sort of my turn. I ought to be able to help lead this thing.” So I did. Eventually in late 1985 after then-director Donald Kerr had decided to move on, I was asked to be director. I took over in January of 1986.
Then that was another major transformation, sort of, in my life, because all of a sudden I went from being concerned almost essentially just about the technical issues that Los Alamos was working on, everything from nuclear weapons to energy, and now to policy related issues. All of a sudden, I wound up testifying in Congress, which I had never done before. I had essentially no experience in Washington whatsoever. I was thrown in, immersed, in that world at a pretty tender age, you know, of 43 years. But then of course Oppenheimer was 39 when he took over. At any rate, I then became director. That changed the focus to having to worry about the whole laboratory, not just the materials issue. Before I took that over, I headed the Materials Science and Technology Division. I headed the Center of Material Science. I had done leadership jobs at the laboratory, but not laboratory-wide, and certainly not policy-wide. That was the immersion in policy, January of 1986.
Later in January, the Challenger shuttle blew up on launch. That was sort of a signal that high-tech things can go wrong. In April of ‘86, Chernobyl blew up and that was a signal that nuclear high-tech things can blow up. That started my career as director at Los Alamos. Then of course by October of 1986, there was the Reagan–Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik where they said, “Why don’t we get rid of nuclear weapons?” My reaction was: how is that for job security? All these guys are going to go ahead and get rid of nuclear weapons. But that was the signal to me that the world had changed dramatically.
Of course, they never got rid of nuclear weapons. However, they made some big changes, some treaties. It’s called the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Russians. Then most importantly for me, because it started my interactions with the Russians, was there was a nuclear testing treaty that was sitting there unratified since 1974. It was called the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. The Threshold Test Ban Treaty, what that meant: in 1974, U.S. and Russia had agreed that – first of all, by that time, all testing was to be underground. That was the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. 1974, it said that it should not only be underground, but it should be less than 150 kilotons of explosive yield. But then the two sides couldn’t come to agreement. They didn’t trust each other. Each side thought the other one was cheating, so this treaty was never ratified.
So here we were. Reagan and Gorbachev in ‘86 said, “Hey, why don’t we do some trust-building and actually see whether we can develop the techniques to ratify that treaty.” That wound up by 1988 – actually it’s going to be 30 years this year – on August 17, 1988, we wound up in Nevada doing an underground nuclear test. It was a Los Alamos device that was [inaudible]. We had the Soviets – they were still Soviets at that time, although we called them Russians. They were monitoring on site that explosive yield while there were others that were monitoring the seismic signals from that blast from a distance. The idea was, could one actually demonstrate that the seismic monitoring is good enough by the onsite verification. We had the Russians there for three months or so crawling all over our test site. It was just amazing. I mean I never, ever thought that that would happen, but it happened.
Then we did the reciprocal. That is, our people were over at the Russian test site. It was still in Kazakhstan at that time, Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, and we repeated the inverse. That is, a Russian device they put down, we did onsite measurements and then others did offsite measurements. That led to them building up the confidence to be able to ratify the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. But it turns out it was basically totally inconsequential because in the process, the Soviet Union fell apart, you know, for many other reasons.
For me, the most important part was sort of the exposure to the Russian scientists as we were there in Nevada working together. That was just absolutely amazing. Then that set into motion an effort, once the Soviet Union dissolved, of actually working very closely with them, the Russian scientists and engineers, as to how does one deal with the new dangers that arose as part of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In the late 1980s, as it was pretty clear the Soviet Union was falling apart, then we saw lots of changes in the American nuclear complex. Particularly the biggest change was sort of our interface with Congress. As long as the Soviet Union was there, they were viewed as the big bad guys. They were the ones that we had to deter. Institutions like Los Alamos National Laboratory – which we were called by that time – and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, as long as the Soviet Union was there, we were handled with I would say great respect. We got great support not only for the military work, but most of the other things that we thought were important.
For example, I viewed our mission not only as providing the technical means of deterring the Soviet Union, but also the second part, which was really crucial. It was to guard against technological surprise. In other words, make sure that the country on the defense and military side would be guarded against technological surprise. That gave us license to sort of poke into all areas of science. We did that from the days after J. Robert Oppenheimer on. We were given support. We were given the flexibility – I would say almost an immunity – from Congress. In other words, we weren’t sort of haunted by Congress the way many other agencies or organizations were.
However, that all came to a crashing halt as the Soviet Union was coming apart. All of a sudden, not only Congress, but the public and Congress, started to look inside of this complex, which used to be Atomic Energy Commission complex, the laboratories that I mentioned and of course many others, particularly the production facilities. They would be facilities like Rocky Flats, which made the plutonium components for nuclear weapons. Facilities like Hanford up in the state of Washington, which once upon a time made the plutonium actually in the reactors and then did the reprocess. Savannah River similarly. Oak Ridge, particularly a place called Y-12 where they did the enriched uranium manufacturing. Those places, as you might imagine, since they were industrial sites, they had significant environmental issues. I would say significant health and safety related issues also.
However, until this mid-‘80s timeframe, first the Atomic Energy Commission, then the Department of Energy, was self-regulated. Then that self-regulation went away. All of a sudden you get external regulators that come in. You get the public that comes in and it looked at those places and the public didn’t like what it saw. By that time, then it was called the Department of Energy, really didn’t have very good explanations as to why we had the situation that we did. For example, what happened in the late 1980s, almost all of that complex wound up being shut down.
For example, in June 1989, the Rocky Flats—this is the plutonium manufacturing complex outside of Denver—was actually raided by the FBI because there were indications that they were doing some illegal things in terms of the environmental activities associated with plutonium. They were raided by FBI, June of 1989. They made all the plutonium components for U.S. nuclear weapons. That was shut down. It never reopened. Then you go to Savannah River, you go to Hanford. Most of those places also shut down. That whole complex then, everything changed dramatically.
Right, as I was rookie director, all of these changes happened. The Soviet Union basically goes belly up. The rest, the American public looks in and doesn’t like what it sees. Congress then, of course, reflects the view of the American public. Congress no longer gave us a free pass on anything. The interaction with Congress became much more difficult from that point on. Our interaction with the public was a real serious test. The people before me, quite frankly – I still remember, again I was a rookie director, pretty young. A public affairs person, I had my first meeting with him. He says, “Hey look, Sig, the newspapers, they are just after you. When you meet with them, just don’t tell them anything.” Well, that didn’t get me very far because that’s not the sort of personality that I have. He lasted about three months or so and then we changed that.
But then I got this incredible education as to how do you deal with the public, how do you interface. Particularly being in Santa Fe, and Santa Fe was already preconditioned to worry about nuclear things because that was the time when the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant down in Carlsbad, New Mexico was being constructed. The Santa Fe residents were worried about the transport of nuclear waste through Santa Fe. Of course, if you come from Los Alamos, you have to go through Santa Fe on the way to Carlsbad. We had already had enough of a public concern in Santa Fe. Then once sort of the gloves came off in the rest of the complex, then that concern turned to Los Alamos itself.
Again, prior to my time at Los Alamos, there was very little expression of concern about the environment, about safety. All that changed dramatically. I had to learn how to deal with four contiguous Indian Pueblos. They are sovereign nations. I had to learn about sovereign nations. I had to learn about Indian Pueblos. I had to learn about the public interface. Looking back, it was an incredible education, but it was a heck of a way to grow up in that world. So Soviets went away; the public interface changed dramatically. I would say the labs in general were sort of slow in being able to understand the transition to how you interface with the public and how you interface with Congress in this very different environment than what you had before.
I would say the third major change that came along with that: as long as the Soviet Union was there, as I mentioned, the money kept coming. Once the Soviet Union went away, the money didn’t keep coming the same way anymore. There was a much greater focus on productivity. What are you doing with those dollars that we are sending from Washington? It was also a time in the late 1980s that the U.S. was very concerned about its industrial competitiveness. Guess what, it was not China that they were worried about. Actually, it’s interesting when you look back today. It was Japan. Japan was presumably eating our lunch, technically.
I had two senators in New Mexico, Senator Pete Domenici and Senator Jeff Bingaman, who were very concerned about U.S. industrial competitiveness. The lab put quite an effort into saying, “All right, what could we do with these enormous talents that we have at Los Alamos?” They were enormous all the way around. There were 10,000 people or so altogether between the laboratory, which was University of California-run at that time, and then contractors that supported the laboratory. We had enormous scientific technical capabilities. Our senators and congresspeople wanted us to make sure that we translate that into improving U.S. competitiveness. But it turns out that’s a very difficult job. Probably of all of the things I did at Los Alamos, we probably had the worst record of all the other things we tried. It’s just so difficult. Los Alamos is not a Silicon Valley. It takes being here in Silicon Valley, where I am now, to understand just how different the culture and everything is here.
Nevertheless, we did some good things, particularly on the government related side of where we tried to help out. One of the things I am proudest of in Los Alamos – it was during the first couple of years – that we actually had a major part in the initiation of the Human Genome Project. So of all the things, here were the nuclear weapons people, presumably that’s all we did. It wasn’t that’s all we did. We did lots of biological-related research because we worried about the effects of radiation on human health and the environment. As part of that, and again with this idea of guarding against technological surprise, we had such incredible support during the Cold War. We had the biggest and best computers in the whole wide world. The only competition we had at Los Alamos was Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. There wasn’t anybody else out there. I mean we were sort of the big guns in the computing world.
We also knew how to do fancy things in the laboratory. We developed flow cytometry, laser-based cell sorting. Then if you are going to do the human genome, you need big computers. Today Big Data is a common term. It wasn’t in 1986, ‘87. By the way, the biologists hated Big Data. The biologists hated Big Science. Many of the biologists spoke out against the Human Genome Project while I was there testifying in Washington to say, “No, we are going to be able to do personalized medicine. We are going to be able to do all of these incredible things.” Then through Senator Pete Domenici particularly – he’s the one who helped to make this happen – we made sure there was enough money [that] went to the NIH, but then the Department of Energy laboratories eventually. Initially it was Los Alamos, but then Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Lawrence Berkeley came into play and we set up these human genome centers.
Then later on, by the 1990s, the private sector came in and one actually got to the point where one first mapped and then sequenced the first human genome. The rest is history. From what I’ve seen, it is considered to be the most productive of all of the projects that the U.S. government has ever funded in terms of its payback of what we have already seen in the human genome.
So we did energy related projects. We did human genome related projects. Los Alamos did lots of things. Those particularly blossomed then in the early 1990s as we realized things had really changed with the Soviet Union. Those were exciting times. But there were also, because of this new and different interface we had with the public, very different times than we had in the past.
There were times when I would sit in a Santa Fe public hearing and just get the daylights beaten out of me for two hours, two and a half hours. Or I would go down to the state. I did lots of congressional hearings, of course. Some of those were tough, but the toughest were in the state legislature. They just loved to beat up on Los Alamos. I was Mr. Los Alamos for almost twelve years. Some of those were really difficult. But the interface with the public, I always enjoyed that immensely.
Of course, we had the additional complications there of being in northern New Mexico. Los Alamos is the city on the hill. It sits up on this mesa top of 7,300 feet. It really does sit way up there. Of course, it was well off. People had good jobs. Most of the rest of particularly northern New Mexico was incredibly poor. So you are there, sort of the rich kids, on the top of the hill and you are trying to interface with the rest.
In New Mexico, it has what I consider these sort of fascinating environments. It has the Native Americans. They have been there, they would tell you, forever. Then you have the Hispanics, who have been there for 400-plus years because Santa Fe was the first capital of anything in North America. That was 1610. They have been there for a long, long time. Then you have Anglos generally, but then you particularly have these eggheads that live up there on the mesa top. That interface was fascinating.
Okay, let me go back to the Russian connection. One of the main things that changed then was indeed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The general feeling in the U.S. about the dissolution of the Soviet Union: now we get the peace dividend. The general feeling in Congress and the American public: “Okay, these guys that have bedeviled us for all of these years, they are finally dead. We are going to finally get the peace dividend.” So in other words, all that money that went into defense is going to go in supporting the U.S. public.
Well, it didn’t turn out to be that way. Then particularly a number of us, and actually many of us, realized that perhaps the day the Soviet Union dissolved would be then known as one of the most dangerous days that we faced. That is that during the Cold War, during Soviet times, we were worried about the nuclear weapons, materials, the people, and all of these things in the hands of the Soviet government. We were worried about potential Armageddon. That we would get to a point one way or another – for example, something like the Cuban Missile Crisis – could light the spark where these two countries wind up annihilating each other. That was a real concern. However, it’s also interesting, as one looks back, and particularly now as more of the history on the Soviet side has come to light, is how they recognized, just like we recognized, you can’t do that. You can’t go to war. You can’t let it get out of hand because it does mean our extinction. So we didn’t, for that reason, but also, we were lucky.
Nevertheless, now, the issue was going to be how endangered are we if those nuclear assets get out of the hands of the Soviet government. And now it was no longer just a Soviet government, but it was fifteen governments because the Soviet Union became fifteen separate republics. Actually four of those republics – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus – all actually inherited part of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Ukraine in fact at that point in 1992 was the third largest nuclear country in the world in terms of nuclear capabilities.
The question now was what happens during these times of turmoil? And indeed it was turmoil, economic turmoil, social turmoil. The lives of the Russian citizens or the citizens of the other fourteen republics were turned upside down. They may not have liked the Soviet system a lot, but at least that system gave them a sense of security. Their children would be educated, and they would be taken care of in old age. All of a sudden, all of that went away. The concern was, in a country where you have turmoil and chaos, how are you going to take care of the nuclear weapons, the nuclear materials and the facilities, the nuclear people? How do you make sure that nothing is sold, particularly if people aren’t eating?
There were a number of universities and actually organizations, NGO, nongovernmental organizations, that recognized that. Particularly, there was one event that brought the importance of that into the spotlight. That was in late August of 1991 when the Soviet hardliners thought that Gorbachev had to be put in his place. While Gorbachev was on vacation in his dacha down on the Crimea, they went, and they actually put him under house arrest. They took away what we call the nuclear suitcase. That is the launch codes for the Soviet nuclear weapons. Fortunately, Boris Yeltsin up in Moscow and actually the Soviet military turned back those hardliners. Gorbachev was allowed to come back three days later. I think it was August 21st of 1991. He was saved by Yeltsin, but his days were over. The days of the Soviet Union were over.
Then there were people like our own from Stanford, Bill Perry, who was actually at that time a professor again at Stanford. He previously had been Assistant Secretary for Defense. Then of course later he became the 19th Secretary of Defense. He and people like Ash Carter, who at that time was a young whiz kid at Harvard, they actually anticipated what was going to happen. That is, the concerns about the nuclear safety and security of the Russian and the rest of the Soviet assets. In Harvard, they actually wrote a really consequential report called “Nuclear Fission” as to what would happen when the Soviet Union fissions. Then by December 25 of that year, the Soviet Union did fission.
Then in addition, David Hamburg, who was president of Carnegie Corporation at that time, was also essential. John Steinbrenner who was at Brookings at the time was essential. But it was these Track II folks that really provided sort of the intellectual underpinning for Senators Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar to craft the legislation which became known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act of 1991 that George H. W. Bush signed into law in December of 1991.
While they were doing that, we on the technical and scientific side, having been introduced to the Soviet scientists in 1988, we were thinking very similar things. Particularly, what’s not appreciated at all in this country, it was actually the Soviet scientists that pushed harder than we, the American scientists. Saying, “We need to get together. We are ready to cooperate. The world has changed on us.”
While they were completing the negotiations for this special test ban treaty in 1989 and 1990, when they had a session in Moscow, the technical leader of that delegation was Viktor Mikhaylov. He eventually became the first minister of the Ministry of Atomic Energy. He invited the American colleagues—they were my colleagues from Los Alamos and colleagues from Lawrence Livermore—to the secret laboratories in Russia. They also had a Los Alamos. They also had a Livermore. It was there that their scientists, their directors actually, then sent a note to me, director at Los Alamos, saying, “We would like to cooperate. We would like to work together.”
Then I started pushing the Department of Energy. At that time, the Secretary was Admiral Jim Watkins. He couldn’t get it through the government. There was still so much suspicion of the Soviet Union. Nobody was sure it was actually going to break up. Sure as can be, they’ve got something up their sleeve somewhere and so it’s really too risky for us. I did not get the go ahead until December of 1991, when President George H. W. Bush was really concerned, now that the Soviet Union is going to break up, what’s going to happen. Particularly, his greatest concern was what he called the “brain drain.” That is, as I mentioned, we worried about loose nukes: what happens to the nuclear weapons. Loose nuclear materials: that would be the loose fissile materials, plutonium, highly enriched uranium, the stuff of which you can make bombs. Loose people: that’s the sort of brain drain. Then again, this export. Potential sale of stuff from their complex.
That’s what we worried about. George H. W. Bush was concerned about the brain drain. Talked to Admiral Watkins. I still remember this meeting, December 16, 1991 in Leesburg, Virginia. Admiral Watkins had pulled us all together. He said President George H. W. Bush – he just said “President Bush” – he is concerned about brain drain. What can we do about this?
I said, “Admiral Watkins, tell you what, if this happened at Los Alamos, I would have some ideas as to what do we do to keep our people at home and make sure nothing happens. Why don’t we go ask them? Ask their directors as to what they need, what they would do.”
He said, “Why don’t you?”
Then his Chief of Staff, Polly Gault, got me afterwards. She said, “I want you to go before Christmas.” This was the 16th of December.
I said, “I don’t want to go that badly.”
But it set into motion by February. We had their two directors visiting Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, and two weeks later John Nuckolls, who was director of Lawrence Livermore, and I were in their secret laboratories, what we call VNIIEF, the All-Russian [Scientific Research] Institute for Experimental Physics, in a town called Sarov, which is their Los Alamos. A city of about 80,000 or so people, closed off to the world at that time. By the way, still fenced off to the world today. Los Alamos had a fence until 1957, then the fence came down. In Russia, the fences have never come down.
Then in a town called Snezhinsk, that’s the Institute for Technical Physics. We went to those two places. Then that started what we call the “Lab to Lab” program. That is the direct interaction, collaboration of the scientific laboratories of the engineers, the scientists, to work together on those four problems: loose nukes, loose materials, loose people, and loose exports. We did that for 20-plus years.
We recently wrote it up in a book. We were fortunate that we were able to get the Russian input before the curtain came down again, which came down after Crimea. My Russian colleagues were not allowed to co-edit it with me. They were going to be co-editors. After Crimea and all the difficulties, they said, well, that’s not in their interest. The government doesn’t approve of them editing. However, we had their input because I had been working on it for four years prior to that, getting their stories.
This book, close to 1,000 pages, we called Doomed to Cooperate, actually tells the story from the American side and from the Russian side about what it was like, what were the issues. So for example, on the American side and this particularly, with Senators Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar, they viewed all of these Russian things as being a danger to the United States. From the Russian side, the nukes, those were their protectors. They guaranteed their sovereignty. Whatever they needed, the nukes were there.
The nuclear materials, they are for our children and our grandchildren. They are a future resource for energy because for example with plutonium, their plan was eventually feed that into what we call fast breeder reactors in order to make electricity. The highly enriched uranium, they are going to downblend and actually light lightbulbs. The people – they were the elite in all of the Soviet Union. They were the best of the best. They were going to be their way of being able to reconstitute a new Russia. Then the exports, they were going to turn those into acceptable civilian exports of nuclear energy and so forth. To the Russians, their nuclear complex was their hope for the future. To the Americans, it was death.
So we, the scientists, once we got over there and we worked with them – what we did was we worked with them initially on scientific research. Because what we found is once we got over there and they came over here, we looked at them and it was like looking in a mirror. They were just like us. They spoke a different language, but what they cared about was science. What they cared about was doing those things that protect their country. We had these commonalities which allowed us to get over the mistrust that essentially the political world had. It allowed us to solve that. I won’t go into any of the details; they are spelled out in the book.
But the bottom line is loose nukes. At some point towards the end of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union is reputed to have had close to 40,000 nuclear weapons. Well, there weren’t any loose nukes, at least none that have gone off so far. That’s remarkable. There were no loose nukes.
By the way, we worked hand in hand with them on nuclear weapon safety, on nuclear weapon security. The things that we did actually as we look back even now, it’s remarkable. We were able to do it. We couldn’t exchange secrets. We never got into their nuclear weapon designs specifically and they never got into ours. We knew where the boundaries were. The boundaries were sometimes different, but you didn’t go there. But there were so many things that you could do in terms of general practice, lessons learned, and so we did that.
Loose nuclear materials: that in the Soviet Union was secret. They never said how much they made. Actually, the problem was they never knew exactly how much they made. That was part of the challenge, but generally, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.2 million kilograms of highly enriched uranium. It takes maybe a few tens of kilograms to make a bomb. Plutonium, we don’t know again for sure, 150,000 kilograms. It takes 5 or 6 kilograms of platinum to make a bomb. They had somewhere close to 1.4 million kilograms of fissile materials, bomb fuel. That is so enormous. Just to give you an example today in North Korea, my best estimate, plutonium, not 150,000 kilograms, maybe 20 to 40 kilograms. That’s it, 20 to 40. Highly enriched uranium – we are not quite sure – a few hundred kilograms, not 1.2 million kilograms. By the way, the United States had somewhat less than a million kilograms of all this. So we also had plenty.
It used to be, for the United States, it was also a secret as to how much exactly we had and made. In the 1990s, Undersecretary [of Energy] Hazel O’Leary, who became Secretary when President [Bill] Clinton took over, she actually decided it was a good idea to do this publicly. We did reports that laid out publicly. Altogether, for example, in plutonium, the United States made 111,000 kilograms. Made or bought 111,000 kilograms. We bought a little bit from the Brits. So also, lots. Highly enriched uranium, less than a million, but still many hundreds of thousands of kilograms.
So that’s what they had. They had a system that worked extremely well during Soviet days. It worked because of the closed and the police state nature of the Soviet Union. That’s why it worked. We called it guns, guards, and gulags. If you were lucky, it was the gulag. If you were not lucky, it was worse than that, and it worked. But then their world went upside down in 1991, ‘92. So the question was, is this stuff going to go all over the world? Well, there were a few early instances, 1993, ‘94, of some plutonium, some highly enriched uranium, being sold, but it turns out very, very little. Amazing as we look back 25 years that not more plutonium and highly enriched uranium got out under those difficult circumstances.
One of the best parts of the book is actually after I left the directorship in Los Alamos. I stayed on. This was 1997. I decided I was going to go ahead and sort of look for all of the potential plutonium all over the world, where could this stuff be, in order to make sure we had it secured. One of the things that I decided we really needed to look at was the former Soviet test site. That’s Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. In the book, we have the story from both the Americans, the Russians, and the Kazakhs of how we worked together to make sure that the stuff that was left behind at the test site – because in 1992, Russia pulled out like 25,000 soldiers from that test site. A good part of it was just left unguarded. That was a difficult time. That was, it turns out, a highly secret project. We worked jointly with the Russians and the Kazakhs for about fifteen years that we managed to secure the difficulty. So this stuff was in a lot of places. Again, the bottom line is not much happened.
Loose people, the brain drain, didn’t happen. Essentially nothing. There were a few cases that are mentioned now and then of perhaps someone from one of their nuclear laboratories – someone may have shared some codes with Iranians. Not specific weapons design, but some codes that might help Iran. Almost nothing. Actually not worse than the United States. You look at that and say again that is just remarkable. There you had to understand the Russians.
If you go back now and you read 1991, ‘92, the concern was that these guys are going to go and live in North Korea. Are they going to go live in Iraq? Are they going to go live in Iran? The Russians don’t go live in North Korea. That’s not what Russia is all about. We didn’t understand the incredible patriotism and then, sort of in the Dostoyevsky sense, the willingness to suffer for your country. Suffering is good for the soul, I think the Russians actually believe that. They suffered through difficulty.
I often went over there. I remember 1998. By the way, I have been over there 54 times. The first one was 1992, so over those 25 years or so. It was 54 times working closely with the Russians, mostly on these issues. Some of the times in 1998, which was their most difficult time economically. I would talk to them. I would say, “When did you get paid last?”
They would say, “Six months ago.”
I said, “My God, how do you work?”
“Well, the grocery store gives us credit. So when things get better, we will be able to pay them off.”
They suffered. They were patriotic. They were professional. They were so dedicated to what they were doing that they were willing to suffer and then hope, as many Russians have done for a couple of centuries, that things are going to get better. So loose people, essentially nothing.
Loose exports. It turns out also not much. There were some concerns in the mid-1990s, the Russians were doing something with the Iranians. There were a couple of agreements there. There were some concerns, but generally Russia and their nuclear complex has, indeed, turned its effort to exporting civilian nuclear things that are legitimate. The reason they do that, they make a lot of money doing that. Actually they make more money legitimately than they would otherwise. The export from the nuclear complex – it turns out missile complex was different. We still have concerns today, have concerns in North Korea. I think there was missile activities that continued to go on after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There were as, far as I know, no nuclear activities going on between North Korea and Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Anyway, we worked for 25 years together in this direction, really hand in glove. The nuclear folks were working closely together with the same mission. That’s what was so interesting. The mission was to make sure the world doesn’t get to be a more dangerous place under those circumstances. It worked well, and it worked during a time when the government allowed us to do this. Admiral Watkins gave me the go ahead on December 16, 1991. Even though in some of my congressional testimonies, there were mostly congressmen who still thought the Soviet Union was going to be bad, they were going to be resurrected and we shouldn’t be doing this.
But nevertheless, generally, we got excellent support from the U.S. government, including money, because of the visionary Nunn-Lugar legislation. All of these things that I mentioned that we did with the Russians, the Americans sort of paid for the out of pocket costs for those. It was a big deal. The Cooperative Threat Reduction program over 25 years or so spent $12 billion U.S. dollars. I would maintain that’s some of the best money that we’ve ever spent.
All of that worked out well. Then came Crimea. Crimea was only sort of the culmination of things that were already boiling inside of Russia. But [Vladimir] Putin, his view of the West and what he was going to do to make Russia great again, as one could say, that then changed to the point where today there is essentially no cooperation left. We at the lab to lab level, I still correspond with my Russian colleagues. I see them when I go over there. I haven’t visited the secret cities for several years.
The good news is they are actually now taking the—they like the Doomed to Cooperate book very, very much. They were afraid for some time that we would try to Americanize that book and just tell the American story. That’s not what I wanted to do because that isn’t history. We told the history the way it was. They liked the book. By the end of this month, early June, they should have the Russian translation of the first volume done. I am going to be back there for trip number 55 June 7 and 8. Then a second volume will be done this fall.
But what I’ve decided – since I personally think having the cooperation end between the nuclear people on both sides is just a terrible, terrible political decision, because in the end, we are still the two biggest nuclear countries by far. We have the greatest responsibility to the rest of the world by far in terms of both further reduction of nuclear arms and then continued improvement, safety, security. If nuclear energy is going to be exported anywhere, it’s our responsibility to make sure it’s done safely and securely. We have a job. Then nuclear terrorism of course. That’s a security aspect. We have a job left to do and our governments are holding it hostage because of their own differences.
The best I have been able to do – and we just had a session here at Stanford in the first week in May – I now bring the young generation together. We had ten young Russians with ten young Americans. We had them here. We had them do tabletop exercises on nuclear terrorism. Actually, I assigned them the job as to how to fix the North Korea problem. That one of the teams, not Russian, American separately, but intermixed, was going to advise President [Donald] Trump. One was going to advise Chairman Kim Jong-Un on how we are going to get to the next step after the summit only takes a first small step. It was amazing how the Russians and the Americans were. These were young, a couple of undergraduates, mostly graduate students, and postdocs. So we call it the Young Professional Nuclear Forum.
That’s what we do for now. The director of the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute is strongly supportive. I do this. Carnegie Corporation and MacArthur [Foundation] are kind enough to provide the financial support to make this happen. What I am hoping to do is sort of to keep the pilot light lit until the days that our governments decide, “Hey look, it really doesn’t make any sense for us to be enemies.” But that may take some time.
Kelly: By that time, those young people will be in charge.
Kelly: So you are still very much a part of the scene in terms of trying to worry about nuclear threats. What do you think of the world today? Where is it going?
Hecker: Actually that’s exactly what I do now at Stanford. If I just go back a bit, in 2005, is when the government made the decision that it would no longer just extend the University of California contract to run these laboratories, which was Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It would rather put this out for bid. I thought that was a very bad idea. I decided I would go ahead and officially retire from Los Alamos in 2005 as they were going to conclude this contract, because I thought I could speak out more freely by telling the government this was a pretty dumb idea. Well, I did speak out. It didn’t work. The contract was transferred to a for-profit consortium. It included the University of California, but it was no longer run by the University of California.
At that time then I was invited to come out to Stanford for a year sabbatical. I came and then I stayed. I have been here now just about thirteen years. What I do here is I work precisely these issues, the nuclear issues around the world. I call it nuclear risk reduction. But then at the same time what I also do is teach. I have been teaching two courses mostly related to nuclear things and I try to get the Stanford students to have an interest and to be exposed to nuclear history, the current nuclear issues. And then at the same time, then I work the nuclear issues around the world.
Again, from my standpoint, the way that I approach this is because of my scientific and technical background and because of my long tenure at Los Alamos, then what I try to do in all of these countries is work with the nuclear complexes in those countries and to find sort of common areas that we could work on collaboratively in order to make the world a safer place. So I describe the activities with the Russians post-Soviet time. I describe that right now that’s difficult to continue. So I work with the younger generation. However, I also work with the Chinese. I have been in China some 38 times, starting in 1994. I work closely with the Chinese also to find where are the common areas that we should be working on together.
Common areas are always nuclear safety and nuclear security. Your job in nuclear safety, nuclear security – the way those of us on the inside see that is your job is never done. In other words, like nuclear safety or security is not a destination. It’s a journey. You should go on that journey together because there is so much you can learn from each other. I have worked closely with the Chinese in relation to nuclear material security. Then particularly in the last few years, we have looked very closely at issues of nuclear and particularly radiological terrorism. Of course you would like to do as much as possible to prevent radiological terrorism, but you also need to do as much as possible to respond to radiological terrorism and how effectively we respond should such an event ever occur—it hasn’t yet, thank goodness—will determine as to whether it’s going to become an epidemic or one-off.
That’s what I do with the Chinese. We also talk some of course about issues of strategic stability. They expressed their displeasure at U.S. ballistic missile defense, especially deployments in South Korea. But mostly we work together cooperatively, very, very constructively, with the Chinese. In the past, since I went to North Korea in 2004 for the first time, we work on North Korea together. Actually to assess North Korea’s nuclear capabilities as well as we can. Having the Chinese and the Americans look at that jointly is much more effective than doing it separately, because the North Korean nuclear program may look much more like the early Chinese program than it would look like the American program. By the way, in the nuclear arena, I am quite convinced that the Chinese government has never specifically supported the North Korean nuclear program itself, neither for energy nor for weapons. Early in the Soviet days, the Soviets did indeed, as part of their Atoms for Peace program, help the North Koreans establish their first nuclear capabilities, research reactors, and civilian, peaceful use of atomic energy. The Chinese have essentially had no connection.
What we do together now is we assess North Korean capabilities and of course we talk about what could be done, what would be most effective. So that’s very useful. We have looked a lot at the expansion of nuclear energy and how you do that in a safe and secure manner, because the U.S. isn’t going anywhere with nuclear energy. China certainly at least until a year or so ago had planned a major expansion of nuclear energy. Eventually, I am sure they will want to export nuclear energy. As the Americans drop out on the international nuclear energy scene, which they are doing – which I think is unfortunate, but that’s what’s happening – and the Chinese are moving in, then you would like the Chinese to actually take on some of the responsibilities that the U.S. had in the international system. Have them become the proponents of nonproliferation, of nuclear safety, of nuclear security. You want them to step up.
That’s what we’re doing. They are very interested. Whereas the current cooperation with the Russians has just gone downhill, cooperation with the Chinese has gone up. That doesn’t mean that strategically our governments are in lockstep, as you know. There is significant competition. There will remain significant competition between the two countries on the economic scene and in terms of world influence. But on the nuclear scene, I think it’s really important that we keep cooperation. That’s going very well.
I have worked also for a number of years on India and Pakistan, first India in the early 2000s up to about 2012 and then shifted over to work more with Pakistan. There the challenges are just immense. Actually, to a large extent, I view the current enormous distraction in the nuclear arena – of course the two: Iran and North Korea. Of course, they have developed into their own crises, but one of the problems with that, we have taken our eyes off the real danger in the nuclear arena, which is India and Pakistan. So there you have a situation of two countries that were born essentially as enemies and have stayed that way. Both of them have now developed nuclear capabilities. You worry about stability in South Asia.
Then you worry again about nuclear security. It’s for Pakistan and India. It’s security of all of their nuclear assets, so from the weapons and to the materials and facilities and to the people. How do you do that? Particularly with these two countries being neighbors and sort of pointing at each other. I have worked in both of the countries. In Pakistan we were making some progress, but again in Pakistan, the governmental relations in the last year to two years have really headed downhill. They are so bad right now that it’s difficult for us to continue the Pakistani collaborations, but we will do so. We are going to have the next forum or dialogue of U.S. – Pakistan Track II here at Stanford in August. We are still keeping that alive, but it’s been very difficult.
In India, initially it was very difficult because the Indians actually trust the Americans less than almost anybody else. Which one would find strange in the nuclear arena, but it’s true. That’s changing. With India, I also tried to sort of beef up our interactions in nuclear material security. I am talking about the strategic assets of nuclear, what can be done as they plan to increase nuclear power substantially. They were planning it in a direction that gives nuclear arms control and proliferation people great heartburn. The question is how can that be? How can you make sure that you take care of the Indian concerns while at the same time making sure you don’t make the world a less safe place? I work with the Indians and made some progress, but not all that much I thought. Although I had good relations.
But in the last two to three years, that relationship between the governments officially has improved dramatically. India is going in a positive direction, Pakistan going in a negative direction in terms of the government interactions. Both of them are just key in terms of making sure there is no exchange – in other words, there is no nuclear war – between the two and then that the assets stay safe and secure on both sides. That remains a major challenge. I would hope that as North Korea and Iran sort of get more or less resolved that more attention is paid to what we can do with India and Pakistan.
But then that turns me to Iran and North Korea. So I also worked on the Iranian situation and had occasion a couple of times to talk to Iranian diplomats and Iranian technical people in 2008, 2013. 2008 was pretty hopeless, I would say, because the Iranians were pretty much saying, “Hey, look, we are not doing anything military.” It was pretty clear they had put the bomb option in place. In 2013, I had a remarkable session with Iranian diplomats and technical people in New York just before the General Assembly, the UN General Assembly meeting, where they essentially said, “Hey, look. We are already to deal.” It was before the official signing of the beginning of the Iran deal negotiations, which was that November in 2013. The Iranians had made a decision, the way that I would put it, put the nuclear option on the back burner.
Then again, I faded out of that because it turns out the U.S. government stepped in a very positive manner. And particularly my very good friend who at that time was Secretary of Energy, Ernie Moniz. He did as effective a job as one can possibly do as both a technical person and a diplomat supporting Senator [John] Kerry. He knew how to use the U.S. scientific and technical talent to help inform the negotiations. On the nuclear part of the deal, from what I thought was possible from my discussions with the Iranians in September 2013, they were able to get much more than anything that I thought was possible. That deal really does set the Iranian nuclear program back substantially.
As we know, our president has just withdrawn from that deal. He complained about the fact that even the nuclear arena, you know, the Iranians didn’t do things right. I think for the most part, that’s just not the case. The International Atomic Energy Agency has been in there in a more intrusive way than they have ever been in there. The Iranians pretty much have kept their end of the nuclear deal. The real problem with the Iran deal, and I think that’s actually what’s on the president’s mind, is that Iran does lots of other things besides the nuclear arena that are not to the liking of the United States.
For example, they do a lot of missile tests. That was not included in the nuclear deal. They are near Iraq. They are in Syria. They support Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen. They do all of those things. And I think the general concern is as they got sanctions relief, they do at least as much damage, if not more, than they did before. Then the issue is, do you kill the nuclear deal to try to address those? My own view is that’s not what you should do. We have got the nuclear deal. It moves them farther away from a nuclear bomb. It’s better to face the rest of those problems in the Middle East without Iran being closer to a nuclear weapon. That’s where we are today.
That brings us to North Korea. First of all, I never wanted to go to North Korea. That was not on my travel plan list. Then in late 2003, my colleague Professor John Lewis here from Stanford invited me to go to North Korea, because he had been doing Track II diplomacy with North Korea for over ten years. They invited him to come back in early 2004. 2003 is when North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty because the George W. Bush administration essentially killed the Clinton-era agreement. It was actually not an official agreement. It was called an Agreed Framework, but it was a deal that in 1994, the North Koreans had said they would go ahead and stop their plutonium program, which was potential, without question, to the bomb. In return for the U.S. with its allies, Japan and South Korea, building a light water electricity producing reactor instead of what we call a gas graphite reactor, which is basically a plutonium production reactor.
That was the deal, along with lots of other things. Particularly one thing that was very important to the North Koreans is it called for normalization of relations and the building of an economic relationship. But it turns out the Americans really never came through with that part. The North Koreans decided they were going to hedge by getting in bed with A. Q. Khan and starting a uranium enrichment program. When the Bush administration came into power, it took a rather little time to go ahead and kill that Agreed Framework because of the concerns about uranium enrichment. What happened at that point is they killed one deal, but as far as I am concerned, they were not prepared for the consequences.
The consequences were that North Korea withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty. It turns out it had, in a spent fuel pool, 8,000 fuel rods from a reactor that had operated for a number of years. They were just sitting there with plutonium in those spent or used fuel rods. Once the Americans walked away from the deal, the North Koreans kicked out the international inspectors. They took that spent fuel and extracted the plutonium. It was about 25 kilograms, maybe four or five bombs worth, and they built the bomb.
The Americans weren’t ready. The Americans essentially did nothing. What was so interesting – it annoyed the daylights out of the North Koreans. They must have said, “Look, we built the bomb and nobody seems to care!” The United States was otherwise occupied in 2003 in a place called Iraq.
That’s why the North Koreans invited John Lewis to come back. He took me along and then we went out to their nuclear center, the Yongbyon nuclear center, where they showed me all of their nuclear facilities. In the end, in order for them to convince me that they could really do this, I wound up holding their plutonium in my hands in a glass jar. Coming from Los Alamos, I knew it had to be a sealed glass jar. But it turns out if you got the plutonium in the glass jar, it doesn’t do you any harm. The message was, “You withdrew from the treaty. We built the bomb. You should know that.” In the end, that was the message.
That was my first visit, in 2004. I went seven years in a row. They allowed me to come back in. Then the last year that I went was 2010. That’s when they actually showed my colleagues and me – John Lewis and my colleague Bob Carlin, both Stanford-associated. Of course, by that time I was at Stanford. They showed me a very modern enrichment facility. They were again sending a message. This time, “Look, not only do we have this plutonium, but we also know how to do enrichment. We can take the highly enriched uranium path to the bomb, not just the plutonium path.”
What’s significant about that is: the plutonium, we know quite well how much they can possibly have because when the reactor operates, there is a signal steam coming out of the cooling tower or hot water going back into the river. You can see that from overhead satellite imaging and these days with commercial imagery. If the centrifuges spin inside a garage someplace, you don’t know that. We will never know how much highly enriched uranium they have. That was the message they wanted to get across.
That was 2010. By that time, they had pretty much decided they were going to go ahead and build a real nuclear arsenal. They had some bombs during the George W. Bush administration and then when President [Barack] Obama came in, I think they had made the decision, “We are going to go ahead and build an arsenal.” Then during the entire eight years of the Obama administration, it was a bit back and forth, but diplomacy never really got anywhere with the North Koreans. The North Koreans tried a couple of times. [The] Obama administration tried a couple of times. But in the end, it just never rose to the point where the U.S. was willing to do those things that could actually stop the development of that nuclear arsenal. It didn’t, even though we had a number of chances.
Then President Trump came in in January 2017. By that time, the North Koreans had developed a substantial nuclear arsenal. Then President Trump said he is not going to tolerate them being able to develop an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile, and a nuclear warhead that can be put on that missile. It turns out 2017 then essentially was the most dangerous year as far as U.S.-North Korea. Of course there were threats back and forth from Trump to North Korea, from Kim Jong-Un back to Trump. In the meantime, North Korea also managed to demonstrate that it has a rocket that has ICBM capabilities. It had tested its fourth and fifth nuclear devices in 2016.
Then in 2017, in September, they tested what appears to be a hydrogen bomb, on the order of 200 to 250 kilotons. In other words, ten times Nagasaki. In my opinion, they hadn’t quite been able to put the two together yet. That is, the intercontinental ballistic missile that actually flies a normal trajectory, because what they had done to fly those – they flew them high rather than far. Then to put this warhead, whatever the device they tested, onto this missile, I don’t think they have put it together. But Kim Jong-Un declared late in 2017 and then in his New Year’s message, “We have done it. We now have completed the state nuclear force and America basically can’t touch us. They can’t attack the country or attack me,” he said.
At that point, my colleagues and I said basically he’s sending a message. He is saying he is done and he is declaring victory. We were hoping that President Trump would also declare victory. What I had been promoting for a long time and particularly since early 2017 is the situation got so bad. I was promoting, “We need to go talk to them even before we negotiate to make sure, just like we had an understanding in Soviet Union days, nuclear weapons cannot be used. We have to have that sort of understanding with the North Koreans.” But things just continued to be pushed in the wrong direction and then Kim Jong-Un’s overture came with his New Year’s speech. Then the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, decided that he really wanted to make peace, and especially he wanted to have a peaceful Olympics. Kim Jong-Un agreed and the rest is history. They came and participated, marched under one flag.
Envoys went to talk to Kim Jong-Un – first time anybody, any official outside of North Korea, any real official. We did have one person and that is Dennis Rodman, the basketball player. When he visited Kim Jong-Un, he talked to Kim Jong-Un. But nobody else had talked to Kim Jong-Un. These envoys talked to Kim Jong-Un, went to Washington with an invitation for President Trump, he accepted. Then shortly thereafter, Mike Pompeo, who was still I think director of CIA at that time, just becoming Secretary of State, went and he talked to Kim Jong-Un. He was just back for a second visit a week or so ago. And all of a sudden, we know so much more about Kim Jong-Un than we ever did before. Right now, things are moving in a very positive direction between North and South and perhaps between the United States and North Korea.
The real issue is going to be what is going to happen at the summit. The way that I would view it, we truly have a historic opportunity and President Trump has a historic opportunity to actually do something positive out of this. Whether it can be pulled off, I don’t know. Again, I have given advice as much as I can to our government to say, look, be prepared for the following potential things. Be prepared to actually go and take some risk with North Korea, because for the most part the way we got into this rather menacing arsenal is for trying to reduce the risk to zero for us.
They are not going to take the really big risk because for them it’s existential. For us, yeah, it’s a risk, but it’s not existential. They are not going to wipe out the United States of America. We can wipe out North Korea. So there is an asymmetry, but they can inflict unacceptable damage on the United States and its allies. Therefore, we need to talk, but you have to be prepared to talk at a level, in a way, that you understand what their concerns are, and then develop a system that gets you down that road. But it’s going to take some time. We are going to have to demonstrate that we have got the patience to go down that road. I hope we can do so. I was extremely pessimistic in late 2017 when people asked me, “Are we going to have war?”
And I said, “Well, I hope not, but I just can’t predict.” Today, it looks much better, but we’re not out of the woods yet.
Kelly: To what extent is the Trump administration seeking out your advice and insights?
Hecker: Actually, right now I am very encouraged. We will see how it goes. I have had a number of opportunities. I’ve met with some of the right people and sent a lot of stuff in. So it’s good. It’s difficult from the standpoint – it’s very hard within the administration to actually take the advice from the outside, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Trump or Obama. Just how much you acknowledge that you are getting advice from the outside then makes it difficult for them to proceed. Of course, there is much of the Track II and NGO community that sort of tries to shame the administration into doing the right thing. Again, whether it was George W. Bush, Obama, or Trump. I think the relationship between administrations and the rest of the community is sort of a touchy relationship. One has to find your own way as to how you can make a difference, but I would say right now I am encouraged. I was not expecting to be encouraged.
Kelly: Right now, Secretary Kerry is over in Korea. What is he doing there? Is he advising their leader?
Hecker: I can’t speak for him at all. I haven’t talked to him about this trip. I have gone to South Korea three times last year. I haven’t gone to North Korea since 2010. I have gone to South Korea at least a couple of times a year ever since. They are very interested. It’s very much like working with the American government. For better or worse, I do have a lot of knowledge of what goes on inside of the complex from the access the North Koreans gave me. Then I have tracked their progress. I have people working with me to track the progress.
We know a lot. I do everything open source. That allows people to learn something in particular and I also do it for the public. So the public actually understands. I have done quite a few interviews. I have written lots of pieces, mostly for public information, for the public to understand what’s there. For example, I think it was in the fall, there was a piece that the headline writers called, “If Nixon can go to China, Trump can talk to North Korea,” and here we are. I made the case at that point that he actually has this opportunity. That was still at a time when they were doing the heated rhetoric with each other.