Video: Richardson: 'Tensest' period in North Korea

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    >>> all right. north korea 's sabre rattling has reached a new level, warning that any provocation from the south could be met with a nuclear attack . that just coming out within the last 24 to 48 hours . now, today the north celebrated kim jong il 's being named head of the military 19 years ago, praising his iron will and military first policy . now, new mexico governor bill richardson just returned from his latest trip to pyongyang where he had traveled as an unofficial peace envoy. governor, thank you for joining us today. of course you're very aware --

    >> thank you, richard .

    >> -- of these threats, governor. they threaten a nuclear attack . did you get any sense here in the conversations that you had had with high-level officials, including the one that was responsible for the nuclear program in north korea , that they had a confidence to implement a nuclear attack should they have nuclear weapons and that they understood the repercussions should they do that?

    >> well, i made it very clear to them that their past actions, their past propaganda threats, the shooting of civilians on that island, the sinking of the ship, the increased uranium nuclear activity for their weapons program was really unacceptable and the reality, richard , is that when i was there and south korea was engaging in a military drill , the north koreans did not retaliate and they also gave me three initiatives, arms control related, that i think could be helpful. more nuclear inspectors, a hotline between the militaries, north and south , sale of their heavy spent fuel rods, their fresh fuel rods from north to south korea . now, look, there's always a difference between their rhetoric and the reality, but, you know, things are very tense there. they're the tensest they have ever been. i had a chance to brief administration officials yesterday, and i said to them that, you know, in my many years dealing with north korea , this is the tensest period i've ever seen, so we have to watch developments there very closely.

    >> governor, you have been around the world, this is just one of the hot spots that you're often called to go to as well as to understand what is happening. you understand the korean peninsula . if you have been there, the rhetoric that they use, the words they use in everyday languages can be quite strong, so how much of this rhetoric back and forth might be cultural, you think?

    >> well, a lot of it is cultural, a lot of it is to disarm their critics. the north koreans also use this excessive rhetoric, nuclear weapons , huge attacks. they attacked the united states , south korea . but many times i sensed, richard , in my meetings that there's a new cadre of foreign minister and military officials that have just come in that are a little bit more pragmatic. now, i'm not making excuses for them, but for the first time they didn't overdo the rhetoric.

    >> right.

    >> they talked to me about maybe engaging in the six-party talks again. but i said, you've got to cool down and improve your behavior. you can't just go shooting everybody and making these statements. you've got to engage. and i think the time has come for diplomacy. maybe an envoy from the u.n. six-party talks resume. but first they have got to improve their behavior. but on my trip, maybe i helped, they did not attack. and they said they would, they didn't. they were restrained. hopefully this will happen also in the next few days, because south korea is engaging in another military drill , which i think is routine. it's a naval drill.

    >> governor, i've only got a minute left and have a lot of questions for you. you did mention the fact that you were there, perhaps you were able to stamp down and give the north an opportunity to step away with not having to employ some of its threats. is there ever a time that you feel, though, that you were called to these hot spots , north korea being one of them, that you might be used by the north to give them that out, if you will?

    >> well, look, the reality is they invited me to go. i didn't go twice before in the last six months because the obama administration asked me not to. i respected that. things were enormously tense then. the reality, richard , is that they didn't provoke militarily. maybe i had a little bit to do with it. these new initiatives that they have promised, they have to be grounded in reality. there have to be deeds and not words. all i'm saying is that the north korea uses propaganda in many ways. their latest propaganda is this rhetoric. but again, i think my trip, my trip did some didn't.

    >> and kim jong il very well known for using the most flagrant or aggressive language as he can, being the sort of bricksman that he is. you know, one of the other concerns here as we've been watching from the outside in, is why is this happening now? one might equate this to a father teaching a son how to ride a bicycle. is kim jong il showing his son how this is done? basically how to extract the most from the west, from the international community , this as kim jong il 's health is in question? do you think that might be one of the things that he's doing there?

    >> well, yes, partially you are, i believe, correct. whenever the north wants something from the western world , the six-party countries, they heat up the rhetoric. they say they're going to take these steps, et cetera . but there's also an internal situation where kim jong il wants to leave power to his youngest son . not his first two sons. and i detected when i was there that this is going to happen. but, you know, there was a little bit of dissent among some bureaucrats that i talked to. they're not going to oppose it. so i do think that some of this showing is for north korea 's military, to show them that kim jong il is strong, that his son will be strong, and so there's a domestic audience here too that they're playing to, not just the international audience.

    >> we've got to go here, but you have been undertaking what some call track two diplomacy where you're not an official representative from the united states . you are a citizen of the united states that has certain perspectives and are then invited to certain places to try to lower the tenseness of that situation. how important right now is track two diplomacy or unofficial diplomacy, based on the fact that six-party talks, the official talks, are really not moving forward?

    >> well, look, i think it's very important. it's not just governments that can make things better. sometimes it's citizens. you know, former president jimmy carter . former president bill clinton . they're not totally official. jesse jackson in the past. u.n. envoys that are named, citizen envoys. we can be helpful. but the time has come, i think with north korea , for the citizen diplomats the like me to step aside and let the governments take over. let official negotiations happen. but i think those parameters need to happen soon, because the intensity of the militantism of north korea and the intensity of the tension in north korea is very high. and you don't want a miscalculation on some of these military drills, a provocation that could, you know, set off a conflict. we have 27,000 american troops in the dmz in south korea . our alliance is with south korea , and we respect that. and we want that. and south korea is engaging in self defense drills. but north korea in the past, you know, they didn't behave properly. they shot at civilians, they sunk that ship. but in my last visit, they didn't react militarily, they put out a mild statement. hopefully they'll do the same with these current military drills and then maybe test them and see if they are serious about those diplomatic initiatives they said they would give me like the inspectors and the sale of the fuel rods and the hotline. and if they do, maybe you restart six-party talks. i just think diplomacy is so much better than war and even war-like propaganda.

    >> many people do hope that the diplomatic efforts will work along with the sanctions that have been put out the by previous resolutions. governor richardson , thank you for getting up early, talking to us about your recent trip, you're just coming back very, very recently. welcome home and have a very good holiday.

    >> thank you. same to you. thank you, richard .

By
NBC News
updated 12/24/2010 4:34:31 PM ET 2010-12-24T21:34:31

Despite years of non-proliferation efforts, the Obama administration has come to the uncomfortable conclusion that North Korea’s nuclear capability is “significantly more advanced” than previously thought.

Senior administration and intelligence have come to that conclusion based in large part on a recent trip to North Korea by Stanford expert Dr. Siegfried Hecker, the former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Hecker’s first trip to North Korea was in 2004 when he says, "I actually wound up in a conference room, in their reprocessing facility, holding the plutonium in my hands in a glass jar.”

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He has since returned to North Korea six more times. After his seventh trip last month, Hecker made a shocking new find: "The North Korean technology that I saw is ahead of the Iranians."

Now he’s saying what nobody wants to hear: North Korea has the capability to export its technology, possibly to other nations that might not hesitate to use it against the U.S. – like Iran.  

Last year, he saw an empty facility at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. But this year he saw 2,000 "pristine" and "beautiful" uranium-enriching centrifuges. 

"It really was quite stunning to see that because I simply didn't expect them to have this sophistication, and this scale of a facility,” said Hecker. And judging by his timing, they built it in one year – almost impossible to do. 

Video: Richardson: 'Tensest' period in North Korea (on this page)

"The past facilities I have been in ... the control equipment is old-style, 1950's American style."  But the new control room was similar to "what you would see in a good facility today in the United States."

Hecker, the co-director of the Center of International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, is speaking openly about what he saw and believes that’s why the North Koreans welcomed his visit.

"The North Koreans expect me to do that, because that's the way that they can actually have an effect."  Hecker believes they have enough plutonium for four to eight bombs.

“The message clearly was, ‘Look, we have the plutonium, and if we have the plutonium that means we have the bomb.’ And they wanted me to take that message back to the U.S. government and say, ‘Look, North Korea has the bomb, they want some respect.’"

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S.Korea to hold live fire drill on disputed island

Hecker says he saw what few would expect a poor country suffering under severe economic sanctions could afford: a new uranium facility with a bright blue roof. Not hidden, as most would think, instead boldly saying, “We are here.”

Hecker spoke with NBC’s Richard Lui about his recent trip to North Korea and what it means for U.S.- North Korea relations and global nuclear proliferation.

Richard Lui: You estimate North Korea has the capability to build four to eight nuclear weapons.  What size would those bombs be like? Like Nagasaki, Hiroshima?

Hecker: The best guess right now is 24 to 42 kilograms. That would make sort of four to eight Nagasaki-like, what I would call a primitive bomb. [Primitive nuclear bombs are bigger in size; advanced bombs are smaller].

A Nagasaki-like bomb means it's a 10,000-pound bomb, so it's huge, you have to put it on a plane to deliver it or in a van or on a boat.

To miniaturize that big bomb takes a significant amount of technology know-how and most importantly nuclear testing... I don't believe they have yet been able to miniaturize, and certainly I do not believe that they could have the confidence in a small miniaturized bomb to put it on a missile.

Lui: You have some concern about the military receiving some fissile materials.  What are those concerns?

Hecker: What I'm mostly concerned about is state control. My biggest concern about North Korean’s nuclear weapons is actually not so much the weapons in their hands, but the weapons or materials or technologies getting out of their hands. 

My biggest concern is: “Could they be building another reactor?”  “Could they be helping the Iranians with a plutonium program?”

Now [my concern] is actually, could they be moving into uranium arena and uranium? The methods of making the uranium are very, very difficult to track.

Lui: You've said North Korea has been working on its nuclear program for decades and it would be impossible to build the centrifuge facility if they just started in April.

Hecker: Iran has taken 23 years to get to where they are. And in my opinion the North Korean technology that I saw is ahead of the Iranians.

My own view is that North Korea has also been pursuing this for decades – most likely three decades or so. But particularly over the past 10-15 years, is when I believe they first of all bought the materials. Then they shaped the centrifuge components, bought many of the components and equipment. And then, they must have received some training somewhere, and had been working at this for many years in order to be able to get this going.

Lui: How does this rate in terms of concern from 1 to 10?

Hecker: When I put together my list of top nuclear concerns, it actually turns out Pakistan comes up on top of the list. But North Korea is up there, it keeps vacillating between #2 and #4.

So North Korea is near the top, and particularly, what's so important about North Korea is that if we could solve the North Korean problem we would give an enormous boost to the global non-proliferation regime. That is what I actually see as the biggest piece of hope, not just to make sure they don't blow up the place, but actually to see whether we can make some progress.

Lui: What is your role when you visit North Korea?

Hecker: I do not come in as an inspector. They invite outside interlocutors into North Korea, particularly when there is no formal dialogue.

So when they want to send a message, or when they want to get some sense as to what is the United States actually thinking. I'm not an official representative of the U.S. government… However, they know I have access to the U.S. government.

To me, that's a very good sign, they want to keep talking, there's at least some hope that one might be able to come up with some resolution.

Lui: What are conversations like when you are talking with government officials here in the United States? What was their reaction?

Hecker: The government officials that I briefed – in the State Department, the Department of Energy, and the National Security Council – I think most of them were surprised the way I described  the scale and the sophistication, but they weren't surprised at the fact that uranium enrichment actually existed.

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I think we all expected that they have uranium enrichment – I've said it directly to my North Korean hosts for six years. So we knew that.

I would like to advise the American government that at this particular point [North Korea has] made it very clear to us that they're not about to give up the bomb because they believe that that provides the deterrent to the U.S. coming in and taking over, and particularly for a regime change...

I think what's really important to make sure the escalation doesn't get out of hand, is what I call the 3 No's. So what I'd like to advocate is: We should go in and make sure we get an agreement, not only with North Korea, but China. And the other is the 3 No’s: To say no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Tension in the Koreas

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  1. A South Korean border guard mans a post through a fence draped with re-unification ribbons near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, on Dec. 22, 2010. South Korea vowed Wednesday to "punish the enemy" as hundreds of troops, fighter jets, tanks and attack helicopters prepared massive new drills near the heavily armed border a month after a deadly North Korean artillery attack. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A North Korean defector takes part in a candle light vigil on the eve of the one month anniversary of the North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island in downtown Seoul, South Korea, on Dec. 22. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A combination of photos shows North Korean soldiers taking part in a shooting exercise at a field in Kaepoong county, on the north side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, in this picture taken from south of the DMZ in Paju, about 31 miles north of Seoul, on Dec. 22. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. South Korean soldiers patrol a seashore in Dangjin, about 120 km 75 miles south of Seoul on December 21. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Bae Bok-soon (R), an older sister of Bae Bok-chul, cries during the funeral for the two civilians who died when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island on November 23, in Incheon, west of Seoul on De. 6. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Crew members watch as an F/A-18E Super Hornet lands on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during a naval exercise with South Korea in the Yellow Sea on Tuesday, Nov. 30. The drills come amid heightened tension in the region after a North Korean artillery attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong island last week. (Park Ji-hwan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Staff watch radar screens in the Combat Direction Center on the USS George Washington during the military drills off South Korea. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Former South Korean special agents whose mission was to infiltrate North Korea, sing a military song during a rally on the Yeonpyeong island, South Korea. About 85 former agents, who criticized the North's attack and urged the South Korean government to punish Pyongyang, landed the island Nov. 30 and said they would stay for a week to help with reconstruction. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. South Korean marines await navy ships carrying military equipment on Yeonpyeong island on Tuesday, Nov. 30. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. North Korean defectors and anti-North Korea activists release balloons for North Korea containing $1,000 in $1 notes and anti-North Korean leaflets in Paju, north of Seoul. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. South Korean middle school students learn how to use a gas mask in a mock chemical attack in Seoul. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. During a rally denouncing last week's bombardment, Korea Freedom Federation members shout outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on Nov. 29. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. South Korean marines watch President Lee Myung-Bak's news conference on a television minitor on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 29. Lee condemned North Korea's recent shelling of the South Korean border island, calling an attack against civilians an "inhumane" crime. (Jeon Heon-Kyun / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. South Korean ships stage off the coast of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 28 as war drills by the United States and South Korea began. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. South Korean protesters hold candles during a rally in Seoul opposing the military exercise between South Korea and the United States. (Park Ji-hwan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. South Korean women take cover inside a bomb shelter on Yeonpyeong Island after authorities sounded the alarm over a possible North Korean rocket attack on Nov. 28. It proved to be a false alarm. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A North Korean soldier, right, looks back as she and another soldier patrol on a pathway along the bank of the Yalu River near Sinuiju, North Korea, Nov. 28. (Andy Wong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A South Korean police car is reflected in the shattered glass of a restaurant window along a seaside road on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 27. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Former South Korean marines burn images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un, during a rally Nov. 27 in Seoul. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Kim Oh-bock, mother of Seo Jung-woo, a South Korean marine killed in the Nov. 23 North Korean bombardment, cries as she holds his casket during a funeral service Nov. 27 at a military hospital in Seongnam. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. South Korean marines carry flag-draped caskets of two comrades during a funeral service Nov. 27 in Seongnam. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The mother of South Korean marine Moon Kwang-wook, another marine killed by North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island, cries Nov. 27 at her son's funeral. (Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. South Korean protesters denouncing North Korean attack on an island close to the border between the two nations burn a North Korean flag in Seoul on Nov. 24. After North Korea's strike, South Korea and the United States said they would launch four-day naval exercises in the Yellow Sea involving an American aircraft carrier. (Jung Yeon-Je / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. South Korean protesters trample on a picture of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il in Seoul on Nov. 24. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A Buddhist monk shouts slogans with protesters at a rally denouncing North Korea in Seoul on Nov. 24. (Truth Leem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A man walks past a house wrecked by artillery shells fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong island, Nov. 24. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Destroyed houses are seen on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 24. (Dong-A Ilbo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. South Korean survivors react upon their arrival at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea on Nov. 24. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A destroyed house is seen on Nov. 24 after it was hit by artillery shells fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong Island. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. South Korean marines, who were injured when North Korean artillery shelled Yeonpyeong island, sit on beds at a military hospital in Seongnam on Nov. 24. (Yonhap / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. South Korean residents take shelter from North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong island, South Korea, Nov. 24. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. People stand near destroyed houses on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Nov. 24. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. South Korean police officers load relief supplies for villagers of Yeonpyeong Island, at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 24. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. South Korean residents take shelter from North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 23. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. South Korean Red Cross workers load relief supplies bound for Yeonpyeong Island at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, Nov. 24. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A resident of the Yeonpyeong Island arrives at Incheon port, South Korea, on Nov. 23. (Kim Chul-soo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A picture taken off television shows the moment of impact of one of the artillery shells fired by North Korea onto the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. This picture taken by a South Korean tourist shows huge plumes of smoke rising from Yeonpyeong Island in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23. North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells onto the South Korean island, killing two people, setting homes ablaze and triggering retaliatory fire by the South. It was one of the most serious clashes between the two sides in decades. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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