Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Front cover of Hinge Points book by Siegfried Hecker and Elliot Serbin featuring Hecker in hazmat suit during Yongbyon nuclear facility visit

Hecker (tall figure in center) during visit to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2007.

by Siegfried S. Hecker
with Elliot A. Serbin

Release Date: January 10, 2023

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In memory of Professor John Wilson Lewis, whose boundless energy and dedication to a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula inspired my North Korea work and this book.

Man crouched down in aisle between students' desks.

John Lewis poses for photo with North Korean students in English class of Pyongyang Middle School Number 1 in November 2006.

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Siegfried S. Hecker


Elliot A. Serbin
Collaborating author

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North Korea remains a puzzle to Americans. How did this country—one of the most isolated in the world and in the policy cross hairs of every U.S. administration during the past 30 years—progress from zero nuclear weapons in 2001 to a threatening arsenal of perhaps 50 such weapons in 2021?

Hinge Points brings readers literally inside the North Korean nuclear program, joining Siegfried Hecker to see what he saw and hear what he heard in his visits to North Korea from 2004 to 2010. Hecker goes beyond the technical details—described in plain English from his on-the-ground experience at the North’s nuclear center at Yongbyon—to put the nuclear program exactly where it belongs, in the context of decades of fateful foreign policy decisions in Pyongyang and Washington.

Describing these decisions as “hinge points,” he traces the consequences of opportunities missed by both sides. The result has been that successive U.S. administrations have been unable to prevent the North, with the weakest of hands, from becoming one of only three countries in the world that might target the United States with nuclear weapons. Hecker’s unique ability to marry the technical with the diplomatic is well informed by his interactions with North Korean and U.S. officials over many years, while his years of working with Russian, Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani nuclear officials have given him an unmatched breadth of experience from which to view and interpret the thinking and perspective of the North Koreans.

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  • Preface
  1. Introduction
  2. Nuclear Background
  3. The State of Play Prior to January 2004 Visit
  4. “Would You Like to See Our Product?” The Improbable Visit to North Korea
  5. Disastrous Consequences of Bolton’s Hammer
  6. Back to North Korea: “No LWR Till Pigs Fly”
  7. Kim Jong Il: Buying Time
  8. “Tell America It Worked. DPRK Is Filled with Pride”
  9. 2007: Back to the Negotiating Table
  10. 2007 and 2008 Visits: Back to Yongbyon to Confirm Disablement
  11. 2008: Almost There, but It All Falls Apart
  12. 2009 Visit: “You Don’t Know How Bad It Will Get”
  13. 2009 and 2010: Clenching the Fist, Not Reaching for Obama’s Outstretched Hand
  14. 2010 Visit: “Tomorrow, You Will Have a Bigger Surprise”
  15. November 2010 to April 2012: Deal Blows Up, Along with Rocket
  16. “Does the U.S. Blow This Up over One Stupid Rocket Launch?”
  17. From Strategic Patience to Benign Neglect
  18. The “Fire and Fury” of 2017
  19. From the Olympics to Singapore
  20. The Train Wreck in Hanoi
  21. Closing Observations: Hinge Points and Missteps
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index

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“Hinge Points is a must-read for any serious practitioner of foreign relations. Siegfried Hecker lays out a riveting narrative derived from his “man in the ring” experiences over several decades. His deep insights are highly relevant to the challenges deriving from a nuclear-capable North Korea playing out in real-time.”
—Vincent K. Brooks, General, U.S. Army (Retired)

“With dramatic visits to North Korea’s long-closed nuclear facilities, and a full cast of top nuclear scientists and diplomats, Hinge Points offers a remarkable account of how North Korea became a nuclear power. Only Siegfried Hecker could have written this sobering tale of why and how the US—with worrying consequences—continues to get North Korea wrong.”
—Mike Chinoy, USC US-China Institute

“Written by a scientist who has actually walked around North Korea’s nuclear complex, Hinge Points is a piercing analysis of the decades-long failure to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. With unparalleled mastery of both technical details and diplomatic complexities, Siegfried Hecker lays bare the history in a way that opens a future path to progress.”
—John Delury, Yonsei University

“With Hinge Points, Siegfried Hecker offers unique insights into North Korea’ dangerous nuclear program. And no-one is better qualified to do so. Hecker has visited the North and talked with their nuclear experts many times—and has held their plutonium in his (gloved) hand.”
—William J. Perry, 19th U.S. Secretary of Defense

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Content Forthcoming.

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