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North Korea and the Audacity of Nuclear Extortion

And the witness selected by North Korean authorities to make the virgin tour of the uranium enrichment plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, or at least to visit the control room and gaze through an observation window at what he has since described as a vista of "more than a thousand centrifuges," was American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker -- a former director of Los Alamos, now at Stanford University. Hecker in the past has been a go-to guy  for North Korean officials wishing to persuade Washington that Pyongyang poses a serious nuclear threat -- part of the one-two punch in which Pyongyang threatens, and then extorts. In 2004, Hecker made a trip to North Korea, during which North Korean authorities gave him a look at their Yongbyon complex. Far from trying to hide their interest in nuclear weapons, they made a point of trying to show Hecker that they were on the way to producing them. Among the exhibits they offered him was a glass jar with a metal screw-on top, containing a sample of what they said was plutonium. Hecker returned to the U.S. to testify before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations -- then including, as ranking member, Joe Biden -- that there were many uncertainties about what he had witnessed in North Korea. But he also transmitted the message that North Korea officials had told him they had "weapons of mass destruction." That, driven home by his tale of hefting plutonium in a jar ("The plutonium's alpha radiation is easily stopped by a glass jar" he explained to the raptly listening senators), created quite a stir.

Earlier this month, together with two colleagues, Hecker made another trip to North Korea, and on Nov. 12th was treated to another supervised tour of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. On Nov. 20th, Hecker published a report on his trip, breaking the news of North Korea's new uranium enrichment facility, with what he described as its "astonishingly modern" control room, from which he had gazed out through an observation window at the "stunning" view of "a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us."

As ever, Hecker in his report was careful to note the uncertainties surrounding much of what he saw. He said his hosts informed him not only that the uranium facility is meant to provide electricity, but that the entire plant is the product of "strictly indigenous resources and talent," and that  the centrifuge cascades are already operating. Hecker said that while some of what he was told is plausible, and might be consistent with what he saw, he did not have independent confirmation of these things. This is, after all, North Korea, where you want to be extra careful about believing anything the authorities say. In 2002, confronted by the Bush administration over its uranium enrichment program, Pyongyang first admitted it, then denied it, then un-denied it, and is now evidently at pains to advertise it. (These are the same North Korean authorities who, on the day of Hecker's visit to Yongbyon, were applauding themselves via the state-run Korean Central News Agency for promoting "long and happy life in good health" for the North Korean public by way of "the universal free medical care system.)

And yet, despite his scientifically punctilious caveats, Hecker ended up transmitting a message precisely consistent with the mix of threats and come-hither maneuvers that are  the hallmark of the North Korean nuclear shakedown racket. Hecker, in his report, pondered what it all might mean. Under the heading "Where do we go from here?" he warned that while North Korea might be merely questing after electricity, there are certain complications -- potentially "serious" --  introduced by the "inherently dual-use nature of nuclear technology." He concluded not only with a summary of what he had personally seen, but with a leap to the policy prescription he favors: "The only hope appears to be engagement." He ruled out military force as an option. He ruled out tighter sanctions. He ruled out "waiting patiently for Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks on terms acceptable to the United States and its allies," saying this would only "exacerbate the problem."

In sum, by selecting Siegfried Hecker as the conduit, inviting him back to Yongbyon and handing him the hot exclusive of the first outsider tour of the new uranium enrichment plant (or at least of the "stunning" view from its control room), North Korea hit on the perfect messenger to whip up a storm over its threats, and couple that with a prescription that America return to the bargaining table -- even if that means doing so on terms that ought to be utterly unacceptable to America and its allies. The State Department has already dispatched its North Korea envoy, Stephen Bosworth, for meetings this week in South Korea, Japan and China. Now, Pyongyang waits for the "engagement," a.k.a. the payoff. And that, folks, is the art of the North Korean nuclear shakedown. Iran, as usual, is no doubt taking notes. One more reason to hope against hope that this time Washington will have the wisdom to depart from the Kim Jong Il script.