The show-off state

Nuclear programs are usually secretive – so why did North Korea brag about theirs to an American scientist?

What if you built a nuclear bomb and nobody cared? The former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory says it happened to North Korea.

For years, Sig Hecker ran the laboratory that birthed the American atomic bomb. As he tells David Martin this week on 60 Minutes, he was surprised in 2004 when he was invited on a tour of North Korea's nuclear complex. He was shown a small nuclear reactor, where North Koreans claimed they were reprocessing spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium, the radioactive element which produced the first nuclear explosion in July 1945.

Then, they handed Hecker the plutonium.

"Here's a piece of plutonium, which in any government in the world would be one of the most tightly guarded secrets, and they hand it to an American?" Martin asks on the broadcast this week.

"Nobody would believe them otherwise, right?" says Robert Carlin, a former intelligence analyst at the CIA and the State Department. "People would say, 'Oh, they're just posturing. Oh, it's propaganda.' So how are you going to convince the Americans? You get an expert who knows plutonium when he sees it, and you hand it to him."

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Sig Hecker

It wasn't the first time the North Koreans had tried to get the Americans' attention. The rogue nation had begun extracting plutonium a year earlier, after a breakdown of the Agreed Framework. Signed in 1994, the agreement was intended for Pyongyang to freeze its illicit plutonium weapons program in exchange for aid. But the Bush administration, suspecting that the North Koreans were cheating and developing a uranium program, began stepping back from the agreement. President Bush in a January 2002 address labeled North Korea part of an "Axis of Evil."

In 2003, the North Koreans withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and began building a bomb.

"And nobody seemed to give a damn," Hecker says in the clip above. "And so they were actually quite annoyed that they went ahead and actually built a bomb and the U.S. didn't care."

But, Hecker explains, the U.S. was otherwise occupied in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq.

"I guess that's a problem most countries haven't had," Martin says. "What if you build a bomb and nobody cared?"

"I think that's exactly why they showed me what they did," Hecker says.

Today, the North Koreans are continuing their campaign to convince the public of their nuclear prowess, but Hecker says they no longer need to show off to him. Instead, they can boast to the world by shooting unarmed missiles.

"They're not missiles with nuclear weapons; they're unarmed missiles, but that gets the public's attention," Hecker says.

 While North Korea recently agreed to send a delegation to next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, Hecker says confrontation between the two countries is the "grave threat" the U.S. faces—not the risk of an ICBM.

"The North Korea nuclear weapons program is a grave threat to the United States of America, and it's because the way that we're handling it could potentially lead to a nuclear confrontation on the Korean peninsula," he says in the clip embedded above.

A nuclear confrontation, he explains, would be a "total disaster," from the number of people killed, to the impact on the world's economy and security institutions.

"All of it goes down the drain," Hecker says. "And so that's a grave threat. I consider that to be, right now, that is the gravest threat."