Nuclear physics isn’t exactly brain surgery, … or rocket science, you know.

In the pages of the L.A. Times, Barbara Demick interviews Sig Hecker, who reassures us that North Korea is years away from having a nuclear weapon that it can deliver to its target.  As welcome as that reassurance would be if it were credible, Hecker is not exactly a rocket scientist.

Sig Hecker is a nuclear scientist and a metallurgist, but he isn’t an oracle.  Hecker spent most of the decade leading up to 2010 explaining how far North Korea was from having a uranium enrichment capability that posed any significant threat.  Then, one day, the North Koreans invited Hecker to Yongbyon, dressed him in red paisley smoking jacket, lit him a Cuban, and gave him a tour of that room full of scantily clad women enriching uranium. Here’s how he explains himself now:

In spite of their repeated denial of having a uranium enrichment program, I knew they had one. However, I was stunned at the size and sophistication of the 2,000-plus-centrifuge facility I was shown. It was another lesson that one should not underestimate the skill and determination of the North Koreans.

Right.  Like when Hecker said this in March 2007:

Our judgment is that Pyongyang’s enrichment program is still at the research and development stage and poses little threat of additional weapons capability or export of HEU at this time. Its fuel fabrication capabilities, however, would allow it to supply the key feedstock, namely natural uranium hexafluoride.

Or this, in the May/June 2008 edition of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

Hence, the uranium enrichment issue remains unresolved. In my estimation, it is highly likely that North Korea had a research and development uranium enrichment effort, but there is little indication that they were able to bring it to industrial scale.

I respect Hecker for being honest enough to admit his misjudgment, but I fear he’s compounding his error.  First, he brings no technical expertise to the missile question.  Second, as was the case with North Korea’s HEU program, Hecker is working with an incomplete set of facts.  Third, his biases are strong enough that, in the absence of complete facts, he tends to make assumptions that support conclusions he favors.  So take Hecker’s claims about North Korea’s progress with a truckload of salt.

Finally, consider that if I can think of other ways for North Korea to deliver a nuclear weapons — by tunnel, with an air cargo flight over a city, or by freighter — so can the North Koreans.