Martin HellmanReading the mainstream media, you’d be forgiven if you thought the only problems with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program were a direct result of that rogue nation’s “nut job” leaders. The most recent example is the coverage of a talk on nuclear proliferation given my friend and colleague, Dr. Siegfried Hecker. While he’s now a professor here at Stanford, in his former life, he was Director of Los Alamos from 1986 to 1997, so “when Sig talks, people listen.” The AP dispatch starts off as follows:

A U.S. scientist who visited a secret North Korean nuclear site last year says Pyongyang may seek to launch a third atomic test to enable it to develop a small fissile warhead that can be carried by a missile.

Nowhere in the article does it say what I’ve heard Hecker say many times before, and what is the essence of his advice on what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program: If we continue to make unilateral nuclear disarmament (by the North) a precondition to talks, they won’t talk. (Would we, if the tables were reversed?) If we don’t talk, they’ll build more bombs, better bombs, and export their nuclear technology.

On the other hand, if we will temporarily put denuclearization aside and address some of their legitimate security concerns – we’ve threatened to attack them repeatedly, and Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review leaves open the possibility of our using nuclear weapons against them – Hecker is convinced by his seven visits there that we can get what he calls “three NO’s for one YES:” no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export in return for our treating them with some respect and reducing the level of threat that they feel from us and South Korea.

When he gave a guest lecture in my seminar on “Nuclear Weapons, Risk and Hope,” Hecker told the class that many people in Washington agree with him, but tell him that his suggestions are impossible because of domestic politics. If the president were to treat North Korea with some respect and address their security concerns, he’d be accused of rewarding bad behavior. While there’s some truth in that perspective, isn’t that what nuclear deterrence is all about?

Returning to the impossibility of rationally approaching North Korea’s nuclear program, what Hecker hears in D.C. makes clear that the solution lies not with our supposed leaders, who must follow the crowd, but with individual citizens like you and me. Until enough of us start demanding rational nuclear policies, we’ll live in a world where it is just a matter of time before the unthinkable happens. If we can find the courage to say that the nuclear emperor needs some new clothes, we could move to a world that not only is safe from nuclear annihilation, but also much safer in general. Please help by sharing this message with your friends and reading at least the home page of my related web site.