Both men were 22 years old and died of bullet wounds to their chest, neck and abdomen, it added.
The Israeli army said the men were involved in a “shooting attack” in Avnei Heftz on Tuesday that wounded an Israeli civilian. Avnei Heftz is a settlement in the occupied West Bank deemed illegal under international law.
“The two gunmen were shot and killed after attempting to flee the scene,” an army statement said, adding two others were arrested. “Two M-16 rifles, military vests and [ammunition] magazines” were confiscated during the raid, it said.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and has a strong presence in the occupied West Bank, said the men were members of one of the group’s branches. The statement said the men had engaged in armed struggle against the Israeli military.A boy looks at blood stains after an Israeli raid in the Nur Shams refugee camp near the city of Tulkarem in the occupied West Bank [Majdi Mohammed/AP]Videos circulating on social media purportedly showed the lifeless bodies of the two Palestinians lying on a tin roof as what appear to be Israeli forces searched them. At one point, one of the soldiers tried to flip one body as he partially took off the dead man’s jeans.
Palestinian media, citing witnesses, said soldiers left after ensuring the two were dead.
Israel has been staging near-nightly raids into occupied West Bank villages, towns and cities for more than a year.
Saturday’s deaths raised to 111 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since the start of 2023. About 50 people have been killed in attacks against Israelis.
The raid followed an exchange of cross-border attacks between Israel and Gaza earlier in the week after intensifying violence that has seen repeated Israeli incursions in the occupied West Bank, as well as attacks by Palestinians on Israelis.
Palestinians see the violent incursions as further entrenchment of Israel’s 56-year, open-ended occupation of lands they seek for a future independent state.
The death of Adnan, who was arrested on March 5 and was awaiting military trial, caused widespread anger and protests in the occupied West Bank, and led to rocket attacks on Israel by armed groups in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Hidden away in the private room of an underground restaurant in Seoul, a disparate group of South Koreans have gathered for a clandestine lunch. Among the mix are politicians, scientists, and military people, some of whose identities are too sensitive to reveal. This is the meeting of the newly formed Forum for Nuclear Strategy, and their lunchtime agenda is ambitious – to plot out how South Korea can develop nuclear weapons.
This once-fringe idea has exploded into the mainstream over the past months. Even South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol raised the possibility during a defence meeting, making him the only president to have put this option on the table in recent times. Now newspaper columns trumpet the idea daily, while a staggering three-quarters of the public support it. South Koreans have grown anxious about their nuclear-armed neighbour to the north, and on Wednesday Mr Yoon is heading to the White House, seeking President Joe Biden’s help.
Since then, the geopolitical situation has shifted dramatically. North Korea is building ever-more sophisticated nuclear weapons that can target cities across the US, leaving people to question whether Washington would still come to South Korea’s defence.
Here is the scenario they chew over: a belligerent Kim Jong-un attacks South Korea, forcing the US to intervene. Mr Kim then threatens to detonate a nuclear bomb over the US mainland unless it withdraws from the war. What does Washington do? Does it risk having San Francisco reduced to rubble to save Seoul? Probably not, is the conclusion those at the secret lunchtime meeting have come to.
“It is irrational to think another country should protect us. This is our problem and our responsibility,” said Choi Ji-young, a forum member and member of South Korea’s ruling People Power Party.
The chairman of the forum, academic Cheong Seong-chang, presented their suggested plan. The next time the North tests a nuclear weapon, Seoul would withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). If, within six months, Mr Kim has not agreed to discuss giving up some of his weapons, Seoul would start building its own. Mr Cheong argues that this would reduce the probability of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, as Mr Kim would be less likely to attack, knowing the South could strike back.
But Jenny Town, from the US-based think tank 38 North, challenges the assumption that a nuclear-armed South would make the North less adventurous. “More nuclear weapons does not make the world safer from nuclear use,” she said. “If you look at India and Pakistan as an example, this is not what we have seen. If anything, being nuclear-armed has sort of given them both the green light to go a little further.”
A nuclear-armed South Korea is absolutely not what Washington wants. Yet, this beast is partly of America’s making. In 2016, then-President Donald Trump accused South Korea of free-riding. He threatened to make Seoul pay for the US troops stationed on its soil, or else he would withdraw them. The fear those words instilled in people has not lessened with time. An increasing number of South Koreans, acutely aware that America’s promises are only as good as its next leader, now favour building the bomb.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, at a local sauna in Seoul, people young and old from all backgrounds gathered to ease their weekly aches, while indulging in beer and fried chicken. While it might seem strange to discuss nuclear proliferation in such a setting, these days, it is almost in the realm of small talk.
“The US is not going to use its nukes to defend us, so we should be in control of our own defence,” said 31-year-old Koo Sung-wook, who swayed this way during his time in the military. He served in 2010, during a major crisis when North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four people.
“It felt like a total emergency. Units were calling their parents and writing wills,” he recounted. Now he worries not just about North Korea, but China too. “We are surrounded by these great powers and walking on eggshells around them. To be competitive, we need to have nukes.”
Hong In-su is wary of South Korea getting nuclear weapons but thinks the country needs them
Another woman was torn over whether the US would defend South Korea, and thought it “better to have nukes just in case”, while a young mother worried that Seoul’s current relationship with the US could change at any moment.
Washington is now scrambling to reassure its ally of its “iron-clad” commitment to its defence. Earlier this month it stationed a gigantic nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the southern port of Busan. But to the frustration of US policymakers, such reassuring gestures no longer seem to be working.
Seoul’s politicians have grown wary of being kept in the dark, unclear about what would trigger the US president to push the nuclear button on their behalf. Currently, there is no requirement for Mr Biden to even tell Mr Yoon before doing so. “At the very least we could build in a mandatory phone call, so long as it is understood that this is still the US president’s decision,” Ms Town said.
Yang Uk, a defence analyst with the Seoul-based Asan Institute, was in the room with President Yoon when he made his remarks about South Korea going nuclear. He claims Mr Yoon was indirectly pressuring the US. “The US is so reluctant to discuss its nuclear policy with South Korea and yet if a nuclear war broke out on the peninsula we are the ones who would suffer the most,” he said.
Seoul is pushing to be more involved in the planning and execution around nuclear use. That could mean having US nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea, or to have a nuclear sharing arrangement, similar to that in Europe, where South Korea is able to use US weapons in the event of a war. A less drastic option would be to create a joint nuclear-planning group.
US forces practice defending South Korea from a North Korean attack
The US is unlikely to offer up much, but knows it must deliver something concrete that President Yoon can chalk up as a win, and sell to the South Korean public. Even so, it may prove too late. This once inconceivable idea is now so firmly planted in the South Korean psyche, it is difficult to see how it can be uprooted.
Going nuclear is a mammoth decision. The current international order is built on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and those that threaten this order, such as Iran and North Korea, have paid a high price. Analysts say the South Korean public has probably not considered the consequences. The US could pull out of its defence commitment, China might retaliate ferociously by hounding South Korea with sanctions, and their country could end up isolated, another failed pariah state, its dazzling international reputation in tatters.
At the sauna, people seemed unperturbed by these scenarios. Only one woman conceded that if it meant South Korea becoming “an axis of evil” then it was probably not worth it.
But that is unlikely to happen. South Korea is too strategically and economically important for it to be shunned like North Korea. Most analysts do not even believe the US would end its decades-long military alliance. Instead, the concern is that a potential South Korean nuclear armament would create such a crack in the non-proliferation regime, it would cause other countries to follow.
Only 82-year-old Hong In-su seemed to grapple with the dangers ahead. She quoted a Korean proverb that roughly translates to “you fall in your own poop”, or in other words, this could seriously backfire.
“I do think nuclear weapons will come back to harm us,” she said. “I feel bad for the next generation.”
In an indication of his extreme anger and his estrangement with them, the leader of the “Sadr movement” Muqtada al-Sadr decided not to allow politicians from outside his movement to attend the commemoration ceremony for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the killing of his father, the religious authority Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who accused Saddam’s regime of masterminding his assassination on February 9, 1999. , which falls on the fourth of the next month of Dhu al-Qi`dah of the Hijri year, and is dedicated to commemorating the anniversary.
This is the first time that al-Sadr has taken a decision of this kind, which means that a wide spectrum of politicians of armed parties and factions who were students and imitators of al-Sadr are unable this year to visit the shrine of the late religious authority, which is included in the commemoration ceremonies, and according to a source from the movement. Al-Sadr, “two politicians and personalities affiliated with the (Virtue) party, (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) and the (Nujaba) movement … and others will not be able to visit the shrine this year.”
And the source added in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that “Al-Sadr intended, through the set of points he issued regarding the commemoration, to send a message to the movements and parties that invest politically in the legacy of the late reference, and sought to stop that personal and interest-based investment that has been going on for years at the expense of the Al-Sadr family. ».
And he continues: «There is another matter that al-Sadr wanted to stop through the instructions he issued, which is to prevent the exploitation of the occasion even by some interest-based tendencies affiliated with the movement, through his insistence on holding the commemoration in Najaf governorate only and limiting it to three days instead of continuing it to seven days as is the case. It used to happen in previous years.Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr during a protest in Sadr City, Baghdad, last month (AP)
Yesterday, Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi, known as “Minister of al-Sadr,” issued a list of the steps ordered by al-Sadr that must be taken during the commemoration ceremony for the twenty-fifth anniversary, and they included “spreading blackness this year by lovers and on their homes, shops, and places of work, and walking from the designated walking places.” It is the outskirts of the most honorable Najaf, or whatever is appointed by the Central Committee as much as possible.
The regulation also prohibited “the presence of politicians in commemoration ceremonies, and it is restricted to Sadrist politicians exclusively only.”
Since Al-Sadr’s decision to withdraw his bloc in the Federal Parliament (73 seats) in early August 2022, speculation about the step that Al-Sadr might take has been deliberating inside Iraq, but Al-Sadr has not taken any step so far that would mix the cards and disturb Months of political calm enjoyed by the government of Prime Minister Muhammad Shia’ al-Sudani.
However, al-Sadr’s failure to take escalatory steps against the government of his opponents in the Shiite “coordinating framework” forces does not mean that he has surrendered to the status quo according to most local observers, and a wide spectrum of them believes that “Al-Sadr deliberately misleads his opponents and may surprise them at any moment and turn the tables on them while he enjoys a strong base.” A very popular masses of obedience and adherence to his orders.
On the other hand, others believe that al-Sadr’s delay in responding to his political opponents, who prevented him from forming a government despite his numerical majority in Parliament, may cost him a heavy political price in the coming years, and lead to the disintegration of his current and the departure of many of his followers, especially if the prime minister’s government succeeds. Minister Muhammad Shayaa Al-Sudani achieved relative successes related to the service side, infrastructure and combating corruption.
Nuclear scientist Siegfried S. Hecker, 79, is one of defining figures of the United States nuclear program. For 34 years, he conducted research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first nuclear weapon was developed in the early 1940s as part of the “Manhattan Project.” From 1986 to 1997, Hecker served as director of the institute and was thus the fourth successor of Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.” After his time at Los Alamos, Hecker taught at Stanford University. He is currently working as a part-time professor of practice, nuclear engineering, at Texas A&M University and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Hecker, since the attack on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been threatening the use of nuclear weapons and has suspended the last remaining disarmament treaty with the U.S. North Korea and Iran are expanding their nuclear weapons programs, and China plans to more than triple the number of its strategic nuclear weapons. Which of these developments do you consider to be the most dangerous?
Hecker: The immediate greatest concern, of course, is Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Putin’s threats appear to be primarily to dissuade the West. However, because they are nuclear, they must be taken seriously. But the much greater danger is the combination of all these developments. And this really began with Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. First of all, of course, we all look at the incredible human toll and suffering of the Ukrainian people. I certainly share that view, particularly because I was born near the Polish-Ukrainian border. But what concerned me most after the invasion of Ukraine is its impact on the nuclear world order. My fear is that Putin has destroyed this order.DER SPIEGEL 19/2023
DER SPIEGEL: Why?
Hecker: The nuclear order of the past decades rested on four pillars. The first is what some people call the nuclear taboo. Since 1945, when these totally new weapons were first developed and then used, no nuclear weapon has been used in warfare. That’s amazing. And it didn’t just happen by accident. It’s the result of an order which has evolved over decades. Many countries, including the U.S. and Soviet Union, wanted to make sure that nuclear weapons were never used, and they were not used.
Foto: Steven St. John / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: But tens of thousands were built, of which 12,500 remained after the end of the Cold War. And now their number is increasing again.
Hecker: Which brings us to the second pillar, nuclear proliferation. One expected, and Robert Oppenheimer said so right after the Manhattan Project, that lots of countries would acquire nuclear weapons in the future, since their power had been demonstrated. But in fact, fewer than 10 countries have nuclear weapons today. That, too, is remarkable. And it is not just the result of a single treaty, but of an entire non-proliferation regime, a set of agreements, security guarantees and institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
DER SPIEGEL: What’s the third pillar?
Hecker: The third is nuclear terrorism. To date, we have not seen a mushroom cloud or a radioactive cloud from a dirty bomb set off by a terrorist organization. When you consider how much nuclear and radiological material there is in the world, that too is remarkable. How could that have happened? Well, the Soviet Union and the United States worked together against the potential of nuclear terrorism. I was involved with at least six workshops with Russian nuclear experts. We put our heads together and said: What do we need to do to prevent terrorist groups or countries that might go rogue and use radiological weapons?
Siegfried Hecker’s family is originally from Sarajevo and was resettled to Tomaszew in Poland during World War II, where Hecker was born. His father never returned from the Eastern Front. He later went to Austria with his mother and emigrated to the U.S. in 1956. There, he studied metallurgy, came to Los Alamos in 1965 and rose to become one of the world’s leading plutonium experts.
During and especially after his time at Los Alamos, Hecker established personal connections with nuclear weapons experts in other nuclear states. He took a total of 57 trips to Russia and 39 to China. Hecker attracted international attention with his visits to North Korea, where he gained access to the Yongbyon nuclear research center for the first time in 2004 and reported in 2010 on a uranium enrichment facility that was previously unknown to Western intelligence services. Hecker reported on his experiences in North Korea in a book published earlier this year titled “Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program.” (Stanford University Press, 2023).
Hecker: The fourth pillar of the global nuclear order is at the other end of the spectrum, the good that comes from nuclear energy. Nuclear reactions, unlike chemical reactions, give you a factor of millions of energy production – immense energy which can be used for both good and bad. More than 10 percent of the world’s energy is produced by nuclear power. Some 40 million people benefit from nuclear medicine, be it in diagnostics or treatment. Ever since my Los Alamos directorship, I’ve been concerned with how we get the best out of nuclear power and avoid the worst.
DER SPIEGEL: In what way does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine endanger these four pillars of the nuclear order?
Hecker: Well, it unravels the foundation of trust that allowed us to live with nuclear dangers. It threatens the peaceful expansion of nuclear energy, and it jeopardizes the consensus that prevented the use of nuclear weapons, their proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
DER SPIEGEL: You were born in 1943, six months after the founding of the Manhattan Project. So, your life almost literally spans the entire atomic age. Would you say that we are at the most dangerous juncture of this age today?
Hecker: I believe that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, as well as some other incidents when the U.S. and Soviet Union came close to the possible use of nuclear weapons, may have been more dangerous in themselves. But the danger that exists today is not a single event. It is the end of the nuclear order itself. So, everything is at stake.
At the end of February, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would suspend the New START treaty. Under the agreement, Russia and the U.S. had agreed to limit their strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 operational warheads and 800 delivery systems each. New START is the last disarmament treaty still in existence between the two major nuclear powers. In 2002, the U.S. terminated the ABM treaty on the limitation of ballistic missile defense systems, and in 2019, it withdrew from the INF treaty on the limitation of intermediate-range weapons.
DER SPIEGEL: Did Putin’s suspension of the New START Treaty surprise you?
Hecker: No. The New START Treaty was signed in 2010 when Dmitry Medvedev was president. Once Putin came back into office, the Russians walked backwards on almost every one of the nuclear agreements. I was involved in one of them, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Then the INF treaty expired. While it was the U.S. that withdrew, there is no question in my mind that Russia had been violating that treaty for years. So, it has long been Putin’s plan to roll back those treaties and do whatever it takes to deny American access to Russia’s nuclear facilities. So far, however, Putin has only suspended New START. This does not mean an exit from the contract. If he withdraws, then the concern is that they would not live by the limits of 1,550 strategic weapons.
Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles at a parade in Moscow’s Red Square in June 2020Foto: AP
DER SPIEGEL: If that happens, will we be faced with an unchecked nuclear race like in the 1950s?
Hecker: That’s possible. It’s certainly not the desire of the American government, although there are some in Republican circles who would like to greatly strengthen America’s nuclear arsenal. In fact, we haven’t built nuclear weapons with new capabilities since President George H.W. Bush made that decision in 1992. Economic reasons tend to speak against a relapse into the fifties and sixties. Neither the U.S. nor Russia want to burden their economies with a large arms race.Unlike the U.S. and Russia, China has never been bound by a disarmament treaty, and Beijing has no intention of changing that. On the contrary: In October, head of state Xi Jinping declared that his country would build “a strong system of strategic deterrence” in the future.
Unlike the U.S. and Russia, China has never been bound by a disarmament treaty, and Beijing has no intention of changing that. On the contrary: In October, head of state Xi Jinping declared that his country would in future build “a strong system of strategic deterrence.” China currently has over 400 nuclear weapons. The Pentagon estimates that number could increase to 1,000 by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035. China’s arsenal of ballistic missiles – also unconstrained by any treaty – is already the largest in the world.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain the change in China’s nuclear policy?
Hecker: China had a very sensible nuclear doctrine for a couple of decades. It said that a few hundred warheads and the so-called second-strike capability are enough to provide the necessary deterrent. Instead, China focused on building its economy and in doing so became the economic powerhouse it is today. That was a smart decision. There’s an enormous responsibility associated with nuclear weapons and there’s a huge financial outlay. So, the Chinese were well advised not to go in that direction in the first place. In the meantime, their economy has grown – but at the same time their insecurity grew. And that uncertainty has convinced them that they now need a larger nuclear arsenal.
DER SPIEGEL: There would then no longer be two, but three major nuclear powers. How will this change the dynamics of deterrence?
Hecker: The dynamics of deterrence was developed for two adversaries, and we don’t know what it’s going to be like in a threesome. In the U.S., many expect that China and Russia will collaborate to form one single node against the Americans. I think that’s unlikely to happen. What I hear from my Chinese and Russian interlocutors suggests that China will continue to pursue its national goals and Russia will pursue its own. So, I think we are going to have three separate nuclear centers. How they relate to each other – that is going to be very complicated.
DER SPIEGEL: In your opinion, how should Europe position itself in this new constellation?
Hecker: The Europeans and the Americans have come together on this issue. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created a unity between them that had seemed threatened, particularly under President Trump. Yes, European countries are different, and each has specific relationships with China and Russia, especially on the economic front. But ultimately, I see the European and American visions aligned as where they need to be vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
A satellite image of a suspected missile silo in China’s Xinjiang autonomous regionFoto: Planet Labs Inc. / AP / picture alliance
“The Chinese want to appear stronger in the eyes of the US government.”
DER SPIEGEL: Communications between China and the U.S. are severely disrupted – at the government level, but even between experts who deal with nuclear and disarmament policy like you.
Hecker: Yes, this unofficial “Track 2” diplomacy is extremely important when it comes to national security issues. I have had this experience with both Russia and China. I have worked with the Chinese nuclear complex, both the military and the nuclear energy side of it, since 1994 directly. I have visited the city of Mianyang in Sichuan province, where the Chinese Los Alamos is located …
DER SPIEGEL: … the place where the Chinese atomic bomb was developed in the 1960s.
Hecker: And I have discussed issues of national, regional and international security, North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs – and the U.S.-China deterrence situation. That was very useful. We, the Americans, came away with a better appreciation of the Chinese views and concerns. And I think they came away with a better understanding of how we think about non-proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
DER SPIEGEL: How should one imagine talks between Chinese and U.S. nuclear scientists? What is the level of trust?
Hecker: We have a totally different type of relationship than many government people or diplomats have. We have this communality that we both believe in the importance of the global nuclear order, which means the expansion of all good things nuclear – and the avoidance of the worst. For example, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, we had a workshop on nuclear terrorism prevention. Frankly, the Chinese didn’t show much concern at first. They had the view that nuclear terrorism can’t happen in China. But then I told them about my work at the former Soviet nuclear weapons test site in Semipalatinsk, close to their border – and all the nuclear materials that were left behind from the Soviet testing days. Later on, President Obama followed up after one of the the Nuclear Security Summits with a joint program with the Chinese, setting up a center of excellence just outside of Beijing. Great step.
Foto: Steven St. John / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, however, hundreds of new missile silos have been dug in western China. How do you assess the expansion of the Chinese nuclear program?
Hecker: The Chinese are building up their nuclear capabilities because they feel insecure. They want to appear stronger in the eyes of the U.S. government in order to protect themselves from the Americans. One of my Chinese scholar colleagues claims their nuclear build-up is not to conquer the rest of the world. They are, however, forging ahead for global economic dominance. I happen to believe that based on discussions with my Chinese nuclear colleagues. And if you believe there might be some truth to this, then more “Track 2” diplomacy should be pursued – not less.
DER SPIEGEL: Beijing has cut off virtually all contact with the outside world during the COVID pandemic and developed veritable paranoia toward the U.S.
Hecker: Both governments seem to be too stuck in their own views. There is also great paranoia about China in the United States. As a result, politicians are driven by domestic political dynamics rather than doing the right things for the benefit of improved international security. I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat, I’m a scientist. And my view is: reduce – particularly reduce the nuclear threats. With China, we still have a big chance to do that.
In terms of North Korea, this opportunity seems to have been missed. In September 2017, the country undertook its last and largest nuclear test to date. The explosion was so massive that the slopes of Mount Mantap, inside of which the bomb was detonated, shifted meters. After a brief phase of détente between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington, the IAEA and U.S. intelligence services are now anticipating that North Korea will conduct another nuclear test in the near future.
DER SPIEGEL: Would North Korea benefit from another nuclear test?
Hecker: The answer is: absolutely, yes. The North Koreans have conducted six nuclear tests and shown us a wide range of delivery systems, from short-range missiles to cruise missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). North Korea wants South Korea and the U.S. to recognize these systems as a threat. To do that, they must be able to mount their nuclear weapons on these delivery systems, and for that they need further tests. I can’t say exactly when there will be a seventh test. But I am almost certain that they will do another test because they need it to accomplish their ambitious program.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think North Korea could enter a nuclear alliance with Russia and China?
Hecker: Before the events of last year, I would have said that North Korea does not belong in that company at all. China is not happy with nuclear development in North Korea. To the Russians it has so far been insignificant. Yes, if North Korea’s tests provoke the U.S., that’s good from the Russian point of view. But I don’t see the North Koreans getting together with either China or Russia in some sort of a big triad. That doesn’t mean that we should dismiss North Korea as much as we have done in the past. One of the arguments that I make in my new book, “Hinge Points”, is that we’ve not paid sufficient attention to the North Korean situation – not just the nuclear threat but the entire North Korean situation. We’ve allowed that to fester so that today North Korea is one of only three countries that can threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons.
DER SPIEGEL: How far, exactly, has North Korea’s nuclear program progressed?
Hecker: We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that they detonated six bombs, and five of the explosions were massive enough to concern us. Based on what I hear from my North Korean and Chinese interlocutors, I conclude that North Korea can reach all South Korea and most of Japan with a nuclear-tipped missile. That alone is big news. In my opinion, they don’t need to be able to reach the U.S. to deter us. There are some 200,000 Americans in South Korea and we have over 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. The damage that would be done by North Korea using a nuclear weapon in either of those two countries would be enormous.
North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un inspects a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile with his daughter in November 2022.Foto: Yonhap / Korean Central News Agency / AP
Siegfried Hecker during one of his visits to the Yongbyon nuclear research center in North KoreaFoto: UPI Photo / IMAGO
“North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are designed and built to reach the United States’ mainland.”
DER SPIEGEL: How far along are the North Koreans with their long-range missiles?
Hecker: North Korea’s ICBMs are designed and built to reach the U.S. mainland. Judging by their last parade, they’ve built a dozen or so of these missiles. In their tests, they have lofted them – on a trajectory that lofts them high and keeps them close. That way they can monitor and assess the performance of that missile. If this trajectory were stretched accordingly, such a missile could reach the U.S. So, North Korea has demonstrated the ability to reach the U.S. – but not yet to do so reliably. The U.S. still conducts several such ICBM tests each year. However, we have the advantage of being able to fire our missiles from California to Kwajalein and track their performance …
DER SPIEGEL: … an atoll in the Pacific where the U.S. Armed Forces maintain a base.
Hecker: North Korea has not yet conducted such tests. And the second problem is the warhead: Once a warhead is mounted on a rocket, it first has to withstand the G-forces at launch, then the cold in outer space – and then the hot reentry into the atmosphere. My assessment, therefore, is that North Korea cannot yet have confidence of reaching the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile.
DER SPIEGEL: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol hinted in January that his country, too, would be capable of developing its own nuclear weapons. How do you evaluate this statement?
Hecker: This question also came up with the Russian attack on Ukraine. After all, it appears that countries that do not have nuclear weapons, or have given them up as Ukraine did in 1994, are in danger of being threatened by a nuclear state. President Yoon’s public statement on this is a very serious matter. Polls at the time showed that more than 70 percent of South Korea’s population supports the development of its own nuclear weapons. I think that would be a very bad idea.
DER SPIEGEL: Why?
Hecker: Because it would make South Korea less safe. The American government, I think, sees it that way too. Because then you would have two reasonably inexperienced leaders on the Korean Peninsula with their fingers on the nuclear trigger.
The testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 2017Foto: 2lt. William Collette / ZUMA Press / picture alliance
DER SPIEGEL: Last week, President Biden and President Yoon reiterated that the U.S. is providing South Korea with its “enhanced deterrence.” How do you interpret this “Washington Declaration”?
Hecker: The primary objective of the declaration was to reassure Seoul that the U.S. will protect South Korea’s security. There are many economic cooperative provisions as well. For the time being, it worked. President Yoon reassured the world that they will not develop nuclear weapons and will remain in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
DER SPIEGEL: Isn’t it understandable that countries like South Korea, Japan and even Australia are discussing the development of their own nuclear weapons after Russia’s attack on Ukraine?
Hecker: It is important to note here that the U.S. does not just provide these countries with an enhanced nuclear deterrent. The important thing is that we have alliances with them. We need these countries. We’re still suffering here from the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency. He put this as sort of a protection racket: Unless you pay us, we’re not going to protect you. The exact opposite is true. We are a maritime power, and as in other parts of the world, you are our allies in Northeast Asia and help us maintain security in that region. That’s why we need you, and that’s why we will step in when you are threatened.
DER SPIEGEL: Iran is also expanding its nuclear program. The IAEA found traces of uranium there in February, enriched to 84 percent, just below the level needed to build an atomic bomb.
Hecker: Iran has restarted producing more low-enriched uranium following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the International Nuclear Deal. For nuclear power plants, you need about 3 to 5 percent enrichment. Enrichment up to 20 percent is considered peaceful. Iran reached this stage years ago. Now they have gone a significant step further. Uranium enriched to 84 percent is effectively weapons-grade. So, the Iranians have not only demonstrated that they know how to step up uranium enrichment, they have done so. And if they continue to do so, it is realistic to assume that they can produce enough material for some nuclear weapons within six months.
Siegfried Hecker (right) and DER SPIEGEL correspondent Bernhard Zand during their interview at Hecker’s home in Santa Fe, New MexicoFoto: Steven St. John / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: How should the international community deal with a regime that has been suppressing a large pro-democracy movement for months – while at the same time enriching significant amounts of uranium?
Hecker: This is where I’d like to use the phrase where I say “I’m just a scientist.” Trading off the nuclear issue versus something as important as Iran’s pro-democracy movement is very difficult. When the nuclear deal with Iran was signed in 2015, I thought it was a good decision in terms of risk management. We couldn’t get everything. The missile testing wasn’t going to be stopped. But we got the plutonium production essentially turned off and uranium enrichment greatly limited.
DER SPIEGEL: Israel had major reservations about the agreement. The government doubted that Iran would give up its nuclear ambitions.
Hecker: We didn’t know then what later became known through the findings of Israel’s Mossad – namely, that Iran already had a serious nuclear program in the 1990s, long before the nuclear deal. They were not just going to build a bomb, as we thought. They were going to build a nuclear arsenal. So, when it comes to the question of how to balance the nuclear deal against other factors, I believe Iran has to do much more – first, to fess up to the fact that they had such a program, and second, to demonstrate it has ended. Unfortunately, our options for working toward this are very limited today. And the suppression of the pro-democracy movement complicates this problem.
DER SPIEGEL: In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, Henry Kissinger warned that nuclear weapons are now more dangerous than ever in the age of cyberwarfare and artificial intelligence. And he expressed doubts as to whether politicians can control this technology. Do you share this concern?
Hecker: When someone of Kissinger’s age and experience says something like that, one should pay attention. I was surprised at the emphasis he attached to artificial intelligence and the possibility of entrusting strategic nuclear decisions to machines. I share this concern. But perhaps I’m not as pessimistic, because this is where the humans need to step back up on the stage and say: We are running this show. We are not going to give that to an algorithm. This is why history, books, research and teaching at universities help us so much. If you go back and read, for instance, the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis you understand the importance of the human decisions. And when it comes to nuclear weapons, it is the political leadership that matters – and ultimately the president. So, my concern is more about which people we elect to lead. We should be concerned about who has their fingers on the nuclear button.
Reuters1 minute readMay 6, 20232:23 AM MDTLast Updated 15 hours ago
JERUSALEM, May 6 (Reuters) – Two Palestinian fighters were killed in an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank on Saturday, the Israeli military and Palestinian militant group Hamas said.
The military said it conducted a raid to apprehend individuals suspected of carrying out a shooting attack against Israelis earlier this week.
“The two gunmen were shot and killed after attempting to flee the scene,” a statement from the Israeli military said.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and has a strong presence in the West Bank, said the men were members of one of the group’s militant branches. The statement said the men had engaged in armed struggle against the Israeli military.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said both men were 22 years old and died of bullet wounds to their chest, neck and abdomen.
The incident came after an exchange of cross-border strikes between Israel and Gaza this week.
Reporting by Emily Rose; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan
Even as the United States and its European allies grapple with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions with China, the smoldering crisis over Iran’s nuclear program threatens to reignite.
In a sign of European concern, Britain, France and Germany have warned Iran they would trigger a return of U.N. sanctions against Tehran if it enriched uranium to the optimal level for a nuclear weapon, three European officials said.
The threat, made last year in a previously unreported letter sent by the countries’ foreign ministers, underscores Western fears that Iran could produce bomb-grade uranium of 90% purity.
Those concerns intensified in February after U.N. inspectors revealed their discovery of uranium particles of 83.7% purity at an Iran nuclear facility built deep underground to protect it from airstrikes.
“Worrisome possibilities include that Iran tested a way to produce near-weapon-grade uranium without … detection,” said a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank that closely tracks Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.
A renewed crisis over Iran would come at a bad time for U.S. President Joe Biden, who is focused on maintaining allies’ support for the war in Ukraine and on rallying Western countries to push back on China’s military and diplomatic ambitions.
But while some White House aides may prefer to keep Iran off the president’s desk, officials and analysts suggested they may not have that luxury.
“They are busy with Ukraine, Russia and they don’t want, for the time being, to open another front,” said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity. “Therefore, they want to do everything in their power to prevent this [90% enrichment] from happening.”
U.S. and European officials have been searching for ways to curb Tehran’s program since the breakdown of indirect U.S.-Iranian talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
The accord, aimed at keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, required Tehran to accept restrictions on its nuclear program and more extensive U.N. inspections, in exchange for an end to U.N., U.S. and European Union sanctions.
The deal, which had capped Iran’s uranium enrichment at 3.67%, was abandoned in 2018 by then-U.S. President Donald Trump, who argued it was too generous to Tehran.
Trump reimposed broad U.S. sanctions, many of which have the secondary effect of forcing non-U.S. firms to stop dealing with Iran or risk losing access to the U.S. market. U.N. sanctions, however, were not reactivated.
The 2015 nuclear deal had set out a procedure for the veto-proof “snapback” of the U.N. sanctions on Iran – including an oil embargo and banking restrictions – in response to Iranian violations. Any of the states who signed on to the original deal can trigger the snapback.
But Iran might refrain from enriching to 90% to avoid the public rebuke implicit in the return of U.N. sanctions.
A senior Iranian nuclear official said Tehran would not take the revival of U.N. sanctions lying down.
“If the other parties under any pretext trigger it, they will be responsible for all the consequences,” he told Reuters. “Iran’s reaction could range from leaving the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) to accelerating our nuclear work.”
Leaving the NPT would free Iran to develop nuclear arms.
The Iranian official’s threat was more explicit than comments by an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, who on Monday said only that Iran had told Western powers how it would react.
It remains unclear if the uranium particles of 83.7% purity were created deliberately. But Western officials and analysts say that Iran’s production of 90% uranium would demand a significant response.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said Biden “is absolutely committed” to making sure Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.
“We believe diplomacy is the best way to achieve that goal, but President Biden has also been clear that we have not removed any option from the table,” the spokesperson added, hinting at the possibility of military action.
‘Face a crisis at some point’
While Western officials want to leave the door open for diplomacy, tensions with Russia and China make that harder.
Divisions over the Ukraine war – which has seen Iran provide military aid to Russia – and rising Sino-U.S. tensions further reduce the odds of resurrecting the deal because it is unclear how hard Moscow or Beijing might push for its revival.
If the deal is dead, the West has three broad options: deterrence, military action or a new negotiated arrangement.
Deterrence has a downside: It could give Tehran time to creep toward a nuclear weapons capability.
Dennis Ross, a veteran U.S. diplomat now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, suggested Biden may have to do more to make Iran fear the consequences of enriching to higher levels.
“If you don’t do enough to persuade the Iranians of the risks they are running, you will face a crisis at some point because they will go to 90%” or move toward weaponization, he said. “What you are seeing is an effort to walk that tightrope.”