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North Korea may turn to Russia to expand nuclear arsenal, U.S. expert warns

Siegfried Hecker, one of the world's leading experts on North Korea's nuclear program, said Tuesday that Russia may supply Pyongyang with assistance in developing its arsenal. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
1 of 2 | Siegfried Hecker, one of the world's leading experts on North Korea's nuclear program, said Tuesday that Russia may supply Pyongyang with assistance in developing its arsenal. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- North Korea has given up any interest in diplomatic relations with the United States and may use growing ties with Russia to give a dangerous boost to its nuclear weapons program, a top American scientist warned on Tuesday.

"The recent linkup of Russia and North Korea is really serious and significant," Siegfried Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said at a press briefing and lecture in Seoul.

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"Kim Jong Un in the past year-and-a-half or so has made a fundamental strategic decision to give up a 30-year effort ... to seek normalization with U.S., and instead has turned back to China and Russia," Hecker said of the North Korean leader.

Hecker is one of the world's leading experts on the North's nuclear program. The Stanford University professor emeritus visited North Korea seven times between 2004 and 2010 and was given rare access to its Yongbyon nuclear research facility.

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Kim has called for North Korea to boost its production of nuclear weapons "exponentially," but Hecker said the isolated regime does not have the capacity to produce enough fissile material.

However, Pyongyang has reportedly begun supplying ammunition for Russia's war in Ukraine and Hecker said Moscow may be willing to reciprocate with nuclear fuel or technical assistance.

"What is Russia doing for North Korea in return?" Hecker said. "What I'm worried about is nuclear cooperation or nuclear transfers. Kim Jong Un cannot increase his arsenal exponentially unless he gets help from Russia."

The Soviet Union was one of the original signatories of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons more than 50 years ago. During the Ukraine invasion, however, Russia has alarmed watchdogs with military operations around nuclear power plants and threats to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

"I wasn't worried about Russia [giving nuclear help to North Korea] two years ago," Hecker said. "With Russian behavior in the Ukraine, they have violated almost every nuclear accord and the norms of how one deals in the nuclear world."

"Russia, in my opinion, has become a non-responsible nuclear state," he added.

In a further sign that North Korea is tying its future to Beijing and Moscow, the regime recently closed embassies in Uganda, Angola and Spain, and is reportedly planning to shutter several more.

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The North's overseas missions have long been used as fronts for commercial activities and illicit trade, but international sanctions have made them difficult to operate, a former North Korean diplomat said last week.

Hecker said sanctions have "worked the other way around," moving North Korea closer to China, its primary economic trading partner, without slowing its weapons programs.

"The bottom line is that North Korea has a very threatening nuclear program in spite of the sanctions," Hecker said. "The sanctions have not been effective."

Diplomatic options for denuclearization also appear to be off the table for the foreseeable future, the nuclear expert said.

"In the long term, we can have some hope, but in the short term, the outlook is very bleak," Hecker said. "Kim Jong Un has made a decision to align himself with Russia and China ... so right now, all the arrows are pointing in the wrong direction."

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