SPIEGEL Interview with Former Nuclear Watchdog: The Iranians 'Tricked and Misled Us'

Part 2: North Korea Considers Bomb To Be 'A Kind of Life Insurance Policy'

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SPIEGEL: You have very special memories of Yongbyon.

Heinonen: Yes, I lived together with North Korean scientists for several months in the 1990s as an IAEA inspector. It was a very tough time. There wasn't any heating, even in the bitterly cold winter, and we had to go to great lengths to have heaters flown in. Even the vodka distilled on the site did little to offset the cold. Everything was fine while we were able to keep an eye on things. But in 2002, Kim Jong-Il decided to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and build the bomb.

SPIEGEL: Then, in 2006, the North Koreans tested their first atom bomb. Did that mark the end of your trips to Pyongyang?

Heinonen: No. Things looked better again a year later. I was able to return and monitor the dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor.

SPIEGEL: Since then, work has allegedly begun again in secret on a new uranium enrichment facility and the construction of a new reactor. Kim Jong Il considers that to be politically expedient and believes that Libya made a huge mistake by giving up its nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang's state-controlled media has even written that is the only reason NATO dared to bomb the country.

Heinonen: The regime clearly considers the atom bomb to be a kind of life insurance policy.

SPIEGEL: It's rumored you may now be "reactivated" as a negotiator because of your personal contacts with the North Koreans. Is that true?

Heinonen: I can't confirm that. It's true that North Korea has signaled its willingness to enter into negotiations, and I think we should take them up on it.

SPIEGEL: North Korea has benefitted from the black market of terror. Without Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb and later a dealer in atomic know-how and nuclear materials, Pyongyang probably would never have gotten this far.

Heinonen: And not only North Korea. Neither would Iran and Libya.

SPIEGEL: Have you ever met Khan? Were you at least able to question him after his arrest in Islamabad in 2004?

Heinonen: I followed his trail for years, and met several of his confidantes. But I never got to speak to him. Nevertheless, he answered some of my questions in writing through secret channels.

SPIEGEL: From his house arrest he now insists he had nothing to do with passing on nuclear secrets or having made lucrative private deals. Do you believe him?

Heinonen: It brings tears to my eyes. Of course Khan was the worst black marketeer and made millions from it. Even so, it's quite possible that others -- for instance Pakistani generals or leading secret-service officials -- profited even more than Khan did. It's more than likely that his country's political authorities were often aware of his dealings.

SPIEGEL: Just like India and Israel, Pakistan never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA has therefore never been allowed to carry out any official inspections there ...

Heinonen: ... and that worries me, especially in Pakistan's case.

SPIEGEL: Because terrorists could gain access to nuclear facilities?

Heinonen: That, too, is not unproblematic. But I'm even more concerned about the government's official policies. The five classic nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain -- have halted all production of fissile material and are negotiating on reducing their nuclear arsenals. Not so with Pakistan. It's going in the opposite direction; building new nuclear weapons, increasing its production of plutonium and continues to make highly enriched uranium. It looks like Pakistan is in the process of building another reactor, its fourth, most probably so that it can launch a counter strike in the event of a nuclear war.

SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama is propagating a nuclear weapons-free world. Is that a completely unrealistic dream?

Heinonen: Such bold visions are important. After all, man has managed to scrap the guillotine. Why, then, shouldn't we have a world without nuclear weapons one day?

SPIEGEL: The IAEA is supposed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, yet one of its explicitly declared aims is the promotion of fissile material for civilian use. Did the Fukushima nuclear disaster sow any doubt in your mind about this?

Heinonen: The world needs nuclear power -- and will continue to do so for a long time. There's no affordable alternative for rapidly growing developing nations.

SPIEGEL: Nuclear power is finished in Germany. Do you think Berlin's decision to abandon nuclear power is irrational?

Heinonen: To be quite honest, I think it's an over-reaction.

SPIEGEL: So you believe the risks are calculable?

Heinonen: Yes. But it is also true that, as Fukushima in particular has shown, we have to include calculations for even the most unlikely threat scenarios. In that regard, we were reckless there. The Japanese didn't do so, and that was a huge mistake -- as was the IAEA's reaction to the catastrophe.

SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting your former colleagues weren't on site quickly enough?

Heinonen: For days on end, the IAEA did everything strictly by the book. It reacted like a fire department that notices a major fire, but says, "I'm sorry, the route there would take us down a one-way street. We'd better keep out of that." It wasn't until very late that they turned up at the scene of the disaster with their own measuring devices and specialists. We need higher safety standards. Nuclear installations must be far better prepared for the possibility of losing both normal and backup electricity. Nuclear facilities also need better protection against terrorist attacks and the theft of nuclear materials.

SPIEGEL: Are you still in contact with Mr. ElBaradei?

Heinonen: Yes, he only recently sent me a text message to tell me about the latest developments in Cairo and in the nuclear world.

SPIEGEL: Will he become Egypt's next president?

Heinonen: I don't think so. He's an extremely skilled politician who always looks for balance, but I think a different kind of politician is needed on the streets of Cairo. Nevertheless, the Egyptians should capitalize on his dedication. After all, they'll find no better person to write them a new, democratic constitution.

SPIEGEL: And what about you? Do you ever yearn to return to your exciting job as a nuclear watchdog?

Heinonen: To a limited extent. I enjoy my academic freedoms here in the United States. I occasionally make a little detour into observing politics as well.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Heinonen, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Erich Follath

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From DER SPIEGEL
About Olli Heinonen
  • AP
    Olli Heinonen, 65, spent 27 years working at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, most recently as the organization's deputy director. Born in Finland, Heinonen was responsible for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. During his time at the IAEA, he frequently came into conflict with problem countries like Iran and North Korea as well as international nuclear black market dealers. It is in large part due to his efforts that the IAEA was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Last August, Heinonen, who studied radiochemistry, accepted a senior fellowship to teach at the elite Harvard University in the United States. In this interview, Heinonen draws conclusions for the first time about his years as an arms inspector.



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