Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
Mar 3, 2018

Deja nuke: Return of the nuclear threat

Co-produced with PRX Logo

On Jan. 25, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists edged the “Doomsday Clock” closer to midnight. It’s a representation of how close the world is to the potential of a nuclear apocalypse.

So, how far are we from a nuclear crisis? This week’s episode examines the question from different angles.

In the first segment, host Al Letson tours the Titan Missile Museum outside Tucson, Arizona, where he comes face to face with one of the most powerful weapons in U.S. history. Sitting at the control panel from which technicians were once able to launch a nuclear attack, he and his guide discuss what has changed – and what hasn’t – when it comes to America’s arsenal.

Next, reporter Emily Harris looks at efforts to curb the president’s power over America’s nuclear weapons. Although President Donald Trump’s mockery of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has alarmed some lawmakers, others believe that complicating his control over American nukes would do more harm than good.

“Introducing problems into nuclear command and control because you don’t like who is the president – which by the way, Americans elected – that is not the president’s problem,” said Michaela Dodge, a senior defense policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The administration’s main justification to upgrade the U.S. arsenal is Russia. We explore why, then venture inside two countries that Trump more often cites as America’s likely nuclear antagonists: Iran and North Korea.

In 2015, Iran, along with Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, signed the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. It was considered a crowning achievement for the Obama administration, but Trump remains a longtime critic. His administration accuses Iran of not living up to the spirit of the agreement and has threatened to withdraw from it altogether. With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, reporter Reese Erlich travels to Tehran to investigate the current state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Next, Letson interviews journalist Suki Kim about international relations with North Korea, and the psychology behind Kim Jong Un’s escalating nuclear threats. In 2011, Suki Kim went undercover in North Korea, posing as a teacher to report from inside the isolated nation. Her book about that experience is “Without You, There Is No Us.”

To close the show, Letson chats with Mike Edinger. He used to serve serve in the Air Force as a Minuteman nuclear missile crew member. Now he is a foreign affairs officer, leading a project focused on how to verify whether nuclear weapons are truly destroyed. The work is incredibly complex, and according to Edinger, crucial if there will ever be a nuclear weapons-free world.

Does he think that will happen?

“I certainly don’t know,” Edinger tells Letson. “I don’t have a crystal ball. … And frankly I don’t spend a lot of time focused on that. It’s the practical work that, if we’re going to get there, you have to go through.”

Dig Deeper

  • Read: America’s atomic vets: ‘We were used as guinea pigs – every one of us’
  • Watch: Atomic Vets

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Ledson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Ledson.
Is this the key that would actually-
Yvonne Morris: Yes. That's [crosstalk 00:00:10].
Al Ledson: Here's me a couple of weeks ago. I'm in a place that I don't really want to be.
Yvonne Morris: So, Al why don't you have a seat right here in the Crew Commander's chair, and I'm going to take a seat here in the Deputy Crew Commander's chair.
Al Ledson: I'm pretending to be a Crew Commander at a former nuclear missile site. I'm sitting in a cushy chair, staring at a wall of dials and buttons labeled things like, "Readiness control," and "Stage one pressure."
Yvonne Morris: Let's say it's 1983. NATO is conducting an exercise known as "Able Archer."
Al Ledson: My guide is Yvonne Morris. If anyone knows what to do in this Commander's chair, she does. In the 1980's, Yvonne was a lieutenant in the Air Force. She led crews at this nuclear missile site, and others just like it.
Yvonne Morris: NATO had moved a lot of forces around, and at the moment ... don't touch that.
Al Ledson: The old fashioned light up buttons tempt me. Although, they terrify me too. Before we get to any buttons though, let me tell you why we're here. President Trump is proposing to overhaul the US Nuclear Arsenal. He said a lot of things that make a lot of people wonder how willing he would be to use nuclear weapons, particularly facing off with North Korea.
President Trump: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.
Al Ledson: The President is the only one who can authorize using nukes. I wanted to get some kind of feel for what it's like to be a part of that chain of command. We drove a half an hour south of Tucson to see what's essentially a fenced-in spot in the desert.
Yvonne Morris: Watch your head here.
Al Ledson: 35 feet under ground. Yvonne takes us past a set of gigantic concrete doors.
Yvonne Morris: So, how the crew would enter the missile site is through a series of these blast doors that each weigh three tons.
Al Ledson: This missile site was built in 1963. It held a Titan II ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead halfway around the world.
Yvonne Morris: So now we'll head down this way.
Al Ledson: Past the entry blast doors, an underground corridor opens up. It takes a couple of minutes to walk right up to the missile.
This is it, huh?
Yvonne Morris: That's it. It's 103 feet tall. It's 10 feet in diameter. The nose cone, up above, the part that's brown, that's where the warhead would have been.
Al Ledson: US Air Force is stenciled in black paint on the shiny metal of the Titan II. These were taken out of service when missile safety inaccuracy improved. This launch site became a museum in the 1980's.
Random question.
Yvonne Morris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Al Ledson: If the government decided that they wanted to use this site to launch another missile, could they do that pretty easily? I mean, it seems like-
Yvonne Morris: It would be easier to start a war with Legos and Popsicle sticks.
Al Ledson: Okay.
Yvonne Morris: Because you just can't get these parts.
Al Ledson: We head deeper into the silo.
Yvonne Morris: Are you claustrophobic?
Al Ledson: No, not really.
Yvonne Morris: Okay, because we're going to be in this elevator for about a minute.
Al Ledson: All right.
Yvonne Morris: Okay. In you go.
Al Ledson: This ride takes us 125 feet underground. We'll be directly below the rockets that would have shot this missile into space.
Yvonne Morris: You need to keep your situational awareness because the head space there is very restricted. So, just be careful.
Al Ledson: Gotcha.

 

Yvonne Morris: All right, so I'm going to let you walk in first. Just keep in mind what I told you.

 

Al Ledson: Yep, gotcha. Situational awareness. Wow.

 

I feel so small standing under this old missile. It looms above me, a giant tube of silver and white. I forget Yvonne's warning, and tip my head back to look up, and see metal, metal, metal, and finally sky.

 

Being here, it's hard to process the emotions, right? Because it's like, it's amazing, but also it's, you know, the purpose of it is to kill people.

 

Back in that Commander's chair, that's what's on my mind. This combination of brilliant human ingenuity and deadly, destructive power.

 

Yvonne Morris: We have to get to our stations. We need to get ready to copy an emergency action message.

 

Al Ledson: Yvonne is running me through a simulation. A President has just ordered a nuclear strike. We copy down the letters and the numbers coming over the radio. We double check them. Four, Three, Lima.

 

Yvonne Morris: Okay, so Commander, they match. Do you agree?

 

Al Ledson: I agree.

 

Yvonne Morris: All right, then we have a valid launch order.

 

Al Ledson: The missile here doesn't have a warhead. It doesn't even have fuel. Still, I'm feeling uncomfortable.

 

Yvonne Morris: So, a Crew Commander, typically what you'd do is you would give a count down, three, two, one. Turn.

 

Al Ledson: Turn, not push. There's no launch button. To fire a missile, two crew members turn separate keys at the same time.

 

Yvonne Morris: Then you would count down backwards, five, four, three, two, one, and say Release, because the key switches have to be held in the on position by both officers for five seconds to initiate the launch sequence. So, on your mark, Commander.

 

Al Ledson: On my mark. Three, two, one, turn. Five, four, three, two, one.

 

Yvonne Morris: That [claxon 00:05:51] means that the Stage One engine has fired. Al and I have now started something that we can't stop.

 

Al Ledson: It would have taken about a half an hour before the missile delivered a nuclear explosion thousands of miles away. That's how nuclear missiles would have been launched 40 years ago. I wanted to know how it works now.

 

Yvonne Morris: The actual process, that's still very similar. You still have a process where you have to authenticate your launch order. The officers have to cooperate, just like we had to cooperate. It still takes turning two keys at the same moment in time.

 

Al Ledson: Somehow, we're living in an era with a danger of nuclear war, no longer feels like some abstract piece of history.

 

President Trump: The United States has great strength and patience. But if it is forced to defend itself for its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocketman is on a suicide mission for himself, and for his regime.

 

Al Ledson: Today, we're looking at nuclear threats. We'll take you to Iran, we'll talk North Korea, but we begin at home. Here's Reveal's Emily Harris.

 

Emily Harris: President Trump threatened Rocketman last fall. A couple of months later, this happened.

 

Chris Murphy: We are concerned that the President of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapon strike that is wildly out of step with US National Security interests.

 

Emily Harris: That's Chris Murphy. He's a democratic senator from Connecticut. He's speaking about whether this President, or any President, should have the sole authority to order a nuclear attack. This is at a Senate Hearing in November.

 

Chris Murphy: Our first witness today is ... [drumroll 00:07:49] Bob Kaylor, Commander of the United States Strategic Command from 2011 to 2013.

 

Emily Harris: Bob Kaylor wears a coat and tie. His horn-rimmed glasses remind me of a style that was popular back when nuclear weapons were invented. In front of a full hearing room, including a few anti-nuclear activists, the now retired general tries to dial back concerns.

 

Bob Kaylor: For nuclear decision making at the highest level, it's a consultative process.

 

Emily Harris: Yes, the President is the only person who can order a launch. But, Kaylor said that top generals, advisors, and government lawyers could question that decision. Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin republican, wants to know exactly how they would challenge the President.

 

Ron Johnson: You believe that is your responsibility. You would have the authority to say, "This is not legal because we have not filed the steps, we haven't gone through the process,"

 

Bob Kaylor: I would have said, "I have a question about this," and I would have said, "I'm not ready to proceed."

 

Ron Johnson: Then what happens?

 

Bob Kaylor: Well, as I say ... I don't know exactly. Fortunately, we've never ... these are all hypothetical scenarios.

 

Emily Harris: One hypothetical scenario brought up in the hearings was the President waking up generals in the middle of the night, declaring that he wants to launch a nuclear strike. Michaela Dodge, a Senior Defense Policy Analyst at the Conservative Heritage Foundation, says, "That notion is ridiculous."

 

Michaela Dodge: The idea that the President says, "I have a headache today, let's nuke North Korea. That's just silly. It's just plain silly."

 

Emily Harris: Michaela knows a lot about nuclear policy, and she gets a little annoyed when I start asking about controversy over the President's temperament. Despite Trump's Tweets about his "big nuclear button," Michaela believes he understands the seriousness of nuclear war. Plus, she says changing the command structure would create delays and uncertainties, and that could make the US appear vulnerable to its enemies.

 

Michaela Dodge: Introducing problems into nuclear command and control because you don't like who is the President, which by the way, Americans elected, that is not the President's problem. That is not the command in control problem.

 

Emily Harris: What problem is it?

 

Michaela Dodge: It's maybe problem on the perception of people who perceive personality of the President.

 

Emily Harris: Some law makers have introduced bills to limit Presidential power to order a nuclear strike. But no one I talked to for this story thinks those have a real chance of going anywhere. Congress is fractured, and it would be a big deal to change. The US President has had sole authority since the first bomb was dropped in 1945.

 

Then Michaela mentions a different threat. She doesn't worry about Trump.

 

Michaela Dodge: What I worry about is how the Russians think about using nuclear weapons.

 

Emily Harris: This makes a lot of sense to hear from her. She grew up in the Czech Republic, a tiny country that's been a frontline over the Russian/US rivalry for decades. And she's not the only one weary of Russian nukes.

 

Mike Rogers: Russia continues to conduct dangerous nuclear exercises directed against the United States, NATO allies ...

 

Emily Harris: That's republic Congressman, Mike Rogers.

 

Susan Davis: I think we're all concerned about the Russian doctrine of escalating to de-escalate.

 

Emily Harris: That's democratic Congresswoman, Susan Davis. And here's Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis.

 

Jim Mattis: Moscow advocates a theory of nuclear escalation for military conflict, and we cannot ignore their investments in nuclear weapons.

 

Emily Harris: Last month, the Trump Administration rolled out its new Nuclear Weapons Strategy. It's a 100 page document, and it mentions Russia 127 times. That's more than twice as often as North Korea, or China. So, what's the plan all about?

 

President Trump: As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and so powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression by any other nation, or anyone else.

 

Emily Harris: While some people see Trump's temperament as a reason to reign in the President, the new plan argues for expanding his nuclear options. It envisions the biggest spike in nuclear weapons spending since the Cold War. It doubles the current costs for several years, adding up to more than $1.2 trillion dollars over the next three decades.

 

President Obama also favored modernizing the arsenal, but President Trump takes things further. He's made it clear the US might use nukes in response to a non-nuclear attack, and he wants new kinds of weapons.

 

President Trump: We're going to be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you've never seen before.

 

Emily Harris: This feels familiar. During the arms race of the Cold War, the US and Russia, then the Soviet Union, upped their arsenals to threaten total annihilation. A 1983 TV movie called, The Day After, captured the fears of those times.

 

In the movie, multiple mushroom clouds erupt across the Midwest plains. In a flash, families are transformed into glowing skeletons. I was a kid then, and like many, I sometimes lay awake at night, afraid of nuclear war. So, are we headed back to that threat of US/Russia annihilation? Maybe. Maybe not.

 

Trump's new plan aims for flexibility. Nuclear weapons tailored to respond to different threats. Experts say there's always a possibility of annihilation, but cataclysmic nuclear war is not the only imagined scenario.

 

Tom Mankin: There are a whole host of circumstances under which nuclear weapons might be used, that would fall short of cataclysmic.

 

Emily Harris: Tom Mankin is a former top military guy. He was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush. Now, Tom runs a think tank, that focuses on military spending, the Center for strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Toms says, "The crucial thing to understand about nuclear policy is that much of the weapons power lies in threats alone."

 

Tom Mankin: So, we use nuclear weapons routinely, even when we're not thinking about it.

 

Emily Harris: You mean, we use them without exploding them?

 

Tom Mankin: Exactly.

 

Emily Harris: US officials worry about several specific nuclear threats from Russia. They say Moscow is not complying with a treaty. They believe Russia has many small nuclear weapons that could be used in flexible ways. And they worry Russia would choose to use nukes too quickly. Russia counters this.

 

Alexei Famenkow: [foreign 00:15:06] second secretary of the Russian Embassy.

 

Emily Harris: Russian diplomat, [Alexei Famenkow 00:15:08] is a portly man with a lush, dark beard. During a recent policy forum in Washington, D.C., he stood at a mic in the aisle, holding a small white notepad. He asked the top general in charge of US nukes a question: "Why does the US think the threat of Russian nuclear weapons is so real?"

 

Alexei Famenkow: How did he make the determination that Russia was [inaudible 00:15:31] nuclear weapons, especially since [inaudible 00:15:34].

 

Emily Harris: US Strategic Commander, General John [Hiton 00:15:37], stood on stage in a dark blue uniform, with four silver stars lining each shoulder, and a panel of ribbons decorating his chest. He looked directly at Famenkow and replied.

 

John Hiton: There is an interesting dichotomy in our nation. We call it the "Say/Do Gap," where you say one thing, but you do another. So, we listen very closely to what your President says. We listen very closely to what your leadership say, and then we watch very, very closely of what your nation does.

 

Emily Harris: In essence, "We don't trust you." This feels like deja-vu. But some things have changed since the Cold War. Over the past two decades, the number of nuclear weapons ready to go has dropped dramatically. That's because of US/Russia treaties. However, those treaties don't cover all weapons, or all countries. Now, almost 10 nations have nuclear weapons at their leader's fingertips.

 

Al Ledson: That's Reveal's Emily Harris. As Emily mentioned, President Trump has been focused on Iran, saying, "It's a real threat when it comes to nuclear safety." To find out how real, we sent a reporter to Tehran. That's coming up on Reveal, from the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Hey, hey, hey, it's Al. At the top of the show, we took you to a Titan missile site. I want to let you know that we've got an extra treat for you this week. All you have to do is open your Instagram app and give us a follow. We're RevealNews. One word. Really easy.

 

All right, we've got pictures of the missile silo, the control room, my guide, Yvonne Morris, and of course, yours truly, looking not entirely comfortable in that Commander's chair. Again, just open up Instagram. I'll wait. Okay. Got it? Look for RevealNews ... boom, boom, boom.

 

Speaker 1: Have you tried to hire someone lately? It's hard, but it doesn't have to be thanks to LinkedIn. You already know LinkedIn is the world's largest professional network. Well, it's also a better way to find great talent. Just ask any of the hundreds of thousands of businesses who have posted to LinkedIn Jobs.

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 2: Ask any of the hundreds of thousands of businesses who have posted to LinkedIn Jobs over the past year. And because Linked In Considers skills, experiences, location, and more to match and promote your job to potential candidates, businesses rate Linked In Jobs 40% higher than Job Boards at delivering quality candidates. 70% of the U.S. workforce is already on Linked In and 22 million professionals view and apply to jobs on Linked In every week. Go to LinkedIn.com/reveal today and get a $50 credit towards your first job post. That's LinkedIn.com/reveal for your $50 credit today. Terms and conditions apply.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Iran has long been considered a nuclear threat. It was one of the founding members of President Bush's so called axis of evil. Then, in 2015, seven countries signed the historic Iran Nuclear Deal. Iran agreed to limit its nuclear energy program and the international community lifted some of the crippling economic sanctions. This was a crowning achievement for President Obama's administration. One of the big issues: How long would it take Iran to turn its nuclear energy program into a nuclear weapons program? Some estimates said just months. When then Secretary of State John Kerry testified before Congress, he argued the deal would significantly extend that.

 

John Kerry: Now, we believe that Iran was marching towards a weapon, or the capacity to have a weapon and we've rolled that back, [inaudible 00:19:35].

 

Scott Perry: Okay, that's your opinion. And I am just gonna actually [crosstalk 00:19:36] -

 

John Kerry: That's indisputably -

 

Scott Perry: No, let me ask you this -

 

John Kerry: That's a fact.

 

Scott Perry: Let me ask you this, Mr. Secretary. Is it ...

 

Al Letson: The man battling with Kerry is an Iraq war vet and republican congressman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. Perry argued that the U.S. shouldn't ease sanctions, that it was giving up too much leverage and Iran simply couldn't be trusted.

 

Scott Perry: The American people see Iran as like a crocodile or a shark that does what it does. And we're saying, "Well, we're going to give the crocodile or the shark a few more teeth and let's see if it does something different.

 

John Kerry: That's just not accurate.

 

Al Letson: Enter Donald Trump. As a candidate, he called the Iran nuclear agreement one of the worst deals ever. As president, he refused to certify it.

 

Donald Trump: We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran's nuclear breakdown.

 

Al Letson: By refusing to certify the deal, Trump gives Congress the option of imposing fast track sanctions, potentially undercutting the entire core. So far, lawmakers haven't done that. But how very real is the Iranian nuclear threat? Reporter Reese Erlich has been reporting from Iran for 18 years and has been investigating that question. He begins our story in Tehran to see how the agreement is affecting people there.

 

Reese Erlich: Friends often ask if I'm afraid when I report from Iran. And my standard answer is yes. I worry about crossing Tehran's six land boulevards.

 

We are now faced with hundreds of cars coming down the main street. None of which will stop for pedestrians. And we have to get across by starting and hoping we don't get hit.

 

Zahara: All right.

 

Reese Erlich: All right, here we go.

 

One taxi, two taxis, three motorcycles, four taxis and we are across. Success.

 

Along for the ride, my translator and fixer, Zahara.

 

Zahara: My name is Zahara [inaudible 00:21:36].

 

Reese Erlich: Zahara works at a state owned TV station. The government assigned her to both help me set up interviews and report back on what I'm doing. In authoritarian countries like Iran, it's the only way journalists can get permission to visit.

 

Okay, so explain what's happening.

 

Zahara: I don't know. He says we have to go to his office.

 

Reese Erlich: Zahara wears a chador. It's a piece of large black cloth pulled tightly over her head and is covering the upper body. It's common in Iran and different from a burka, which completely covers a woman's face. Zahara also sports a collared scarf, indicating she's a devout muslim and stylish.

 

We arrive in a large mosque for Friday prayers. Men wearing suits without ties, mullahs in brown robes, women in all black. Suddenly, a woman approaches.

 

Aria: [foreign language 00:22:34]

 

Reese Erlich: Without me even asking the question, she starts talking into my microphone. Zahara translates as the woman lets loose on Trump.

 

Zahara: Well, I really hate the guy, not just for Iran, but for the whole world. I just hope he doesn't start a war.

 

Reese Erlich: The woman, [Muh-soom-kuh 00:22:55], is 63 and a housewife. She tell me she just wants peace and describes Trump as uninformed.

 

Aria: [ foreign language 00:05:02]

 

Zahara: I feel sorry for the American people and they're stuck with this guy. I really don't know why the Americans voted for him.

 

Reese Erlich: Perhaps not surprisingly, in nearly two dozen interviews in rich and poor neighborhoods in Tehran, I couldn't find anyone who said they like Trump's policies. But that doesn't mean Iranians are happy with their own government either.

 

I told Zahara I wanted to meet working class Iranians and she brought me here, to upscale neighborhood in north Tehran, where her grandparents apartment has been totally gutted for a remodel.

 

So this is your Grandmother's house?

 

Zahara: Yep.

 

Reese Erlich: I noticed the shock on your face as we walked in. What do we see here?

 

Zahara: Everything is in a big chaos. I'm wondering how we're going to fix this whole place up.

 

Reese Erlich: 31 year old electrician, Aria [inaudible 00:23:52], splices multi-colored wiring while we talk.

 

Aria: I've always liked to fix things. Like TV and radio and electronic devices since I was a kid.

 

Reese Erlich: Aria is an imposing guy, six feet tall, and he speaks with the confidence of a skilled worker. After he finished compulsory military service, he became an electrician's apprentice, then went on to college for two years to become journeyman.

 

Aria: I like to work with electricity. You have to be smart and talented to do this.

 

Reese Erlich: While the wealthy in Tehran can buy Lamborghini's, Aria, like many workers, struggles to survive. He says he can't afford rent and sometimes stays with relatives or sleeps in refurbished shipping containers at construction sites. He hoped the economy would get better under Hassan Rouhani, the center's president who was re-elected in 2017.

 

Aria: We were waiting for change, but it wasn't much. It hasn't had any effect on the life of the working class.

 

Reese Erlich: Aria says the Iranian government is spending billions of dollars on Mid-East wars, when it should be creating jobs at home.

 

Aria: Mostly it is the fault of our politicians and authorities because they are looking for a fight in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

 

[foreign language 00:25:10]

 

Reese Erlich: Aria also blames the U.S. sanctions for the economic problems. While the United States has lifted sanctions related to Iran's nuclear activity, it continues to enforce many others, punishing the country for human right's violations and its ballistic missile program. Aria tells me the sanctions even affect his work as an electrician. Instead of buy electrical fuses from U.S. and European manufacturers, he says he has to buy inferior quality materials from other countries.

 

Aria: For example, now we have these fuses from Turkey. I had to change them three times so far. The better quality English and American fuses are not imported anymore.

 

Reese Erlich: While President Trump continues to talk about the threat of Iran one day obtaining nuclear weapons, Aria, like most Iranians, believes that his country has never had a nuclear weapons program and that the Iranian government is only interested in developing nuclear energy.

 

Aria: We shouldn't worry about Iran making a nuclear weapon. Right now, the government is more interested in getting nuclear power.

 

Reese Erlich: That's what the Iranian government has been saying for years. I pay a visit to Iran's majilis, or parliament.

 

Oh, I see, so on the other side of these doors is the chamber?

 

Zahara: Yeah.

 

Reese Erlich: I sit down with member of parliament, Kamal [De-gan-ee 00:26:37]. We meet in a hallway just outside the main chamber.

 

Where is he going to sit?

 

Zahara: He'll sit on that side.

 

Reese Erlich: [De-gan-ee 00:26:45] is deputy chair of the national security and foreign affairs committee. While he supports the 2015 Iran deal, he thinks the U.S. is taking advantage.

 

Kamal D.: I think the agreement should have been written in way that American's couldn't use any loopholes or any opportunity to sanction Iran again.

 

Reese Erlich: I hear the same thing from almost everybody I talk to. But University of Tehran assistant professor, Foad Izadi says it best.

 

Foad Izadi: So a lot of people in Iran are asking, "You're getting sanctions before the agreement and you're getting sanctions after the agreement, so what's the use of accepting what the U.S. wants you to accept?"

 

Reese Erlich: Foad regularly consults with Iran's foreign minister. He says Iranian leaders are exasperated. They accuse the U.S. of moving the goalpost. That one day it's about nukes, the next day, it's human rights. Foad believes the real reason for U.S. pressure is something else altogether.

 

Foad Izadi: I think one of the primary objectives that the U.S. has in this part of the world is to make sure that the oil that exists here is directly or indirectly controlled by the United States.

 

Reese Erlich: Foad reminds me that British and American companies once dominated Iran's oil production. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the new government nationalized the oil industry. He believes the U.S. wants to restore economic, political, and military control over Iran as it tried to do in Iraq.

 

Foad Izadi: They're interested in having governments that are pro-U.S., that listen to U.S. in their foreign policy, and that make sure that the oil prices are not too high. Oil is a major factor in U.S. geopolitical calculations.

 

Reese Erlich: A few weeks later I go to Washington D.C. I'm in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House to rendezvous with a former U.S. intelligence officer.

 

Mr. Pillar, I presume?

 

Paul Pillar is a former CIA analyst. He's met many times with presidents in the White House situation room. He reflects the view of the CIA: that Iran did conduct nuclear weapons research.

 

Paul Pillar: I think Iran did have the nuclear weapon option as something that it at least had in mind and wanted to preserve as an option.

 

Reese Erlich: But, Paul says Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program long ago.

 

Paul Pillar: That, of course, was the headline item.

 

Reese Erlich: The headline item in two different national intelligence estimates, or NIE's. In 2007 and 2011, all the major U.S. intelligence agencies came together to issue NIE's about Iran and nukes. They found that while Iran was likely keeping the door open to the possibility of nuclear weapons, it had actually suspended its program years earlier, way back in 2003.

 

So, when it comes to the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, Paul is quite clear.

 

Paul Pillar: I don't think Iran was ever a nuclear threat to the United States.

 

Reese Erlich: Paul doesn't think anything has changed since those NIE's were issued. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which conducts on the ground inspections says Iran is abiding by the nuclear agreement. And all the nations, besides the U.S., that signed the nuclear deal agree that Iran is in compliance.

 

Paul Pillar: The agreement is working. So, from a standpoint of what best serves U.S. national interest, it really is mystifying that Washington is in the kind of snit about Iran and nuclear matters.

 

Reese Erlich: All of this raises big question. If the U.S. knows Iran hasn't had a nuclear weapons program since 2003, why are Trump and leaders in Washington so worried? Patrick Clawson works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think tank with influence inside the Trump White House. He tells me Iran is hiding something.

 

Patrick Clawson: Iran has put a lot of effort in to ... and a lot of money and a lot of prestige into building facilities which don't have any obvious civilian use, but do have a very clear potential military use.

 

Reese Erlich: So do you think that, even as of today, Iran has its nuclear program is really aimed at developing nuclear weapons?

 

Patrick Clawson: Look, I think that its program is aimed to having that option. And that's disturbing.

 

Reese Erlich: Nuclear program or not, Patrick argues the U.S. is justified in imposing sanctions given Iran's human rights record and support for terrorist groups.

 

Patrick Clawson: It's very difficult to see circumstances under which Iran is going to satisfy the United States on those issues.

 

Reese Erlich: When you really boil it down, Patrick says the U.S. and Iran are just politically incompatible.

 

Patrick Clawson: And certainly it will continue to be the case that just as the Iranian government would be delighted if the U.S. government fell, so the the United States government would be delighted if the Iranian government fell.

 

Reese Erlich: But the story isn't over. Just days after I left Iran, this happened.

 

Speaker 3: Protests in Iran. They're going called the largest political protests in that nation since 2009.

 

Speaker 4: Protestors attacked a police last night about 200 miles south of Tehran.

 

Speaker 5: Outrage over skyrocketing for food morphing into broader anti-regime anger.

 

Reese Erlich: Starting in late December of 2017, tens of thousands of mostly young workers took to the streets. They rallied against high unemployment, government repression, and soaring prices for some essential drugs. Some even chanted, "Death to the dictator," referring to Iran's top political leader [inaudible 00:32:25] Ali Khamanei.

 

I tried to contact the electrician Aria, but most messaging apps were blocked. After a few days I got through to him. He said the situation was tense.

 

Aria: I know many people that took part in both demonstrations. Today a group of people comes up and protests against the regime. Tomorrow the same people go and take part in a pro-regime demonstration so they can have both sides.

 

Reese Erlich: Aria explained his friends were hedging their bets because they were so afraid of a government backlash.

 

Aria: People are fearful of the government. Not that they don't want change, they do. But since they know that this government is powerful and won't give up easily, they are afraid. People really want a revolution, but also, they're afraid to lose what they have.

 

Reese Erlich: Aria's friends had good reason for concern. The Iranian government cracked down hard on the protests. 25 people were killed, and nearly 5,000 arrested. In January and February, individual women continued the protest. Instead of wearing the mandatory headscarves, they took them off and waved them in the air. For now, the mass protests are over, but the Iranian people's opposition, both to government policies and U.S. interference, seems likely to continue for years to come.

 

Al Letson: Reporter Reese Erlich has covered Iran since 2000 and is the author of "The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and Middle East Crisis." His reporting from Iran was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on crisis reporting.

 

When it comes to nukes, North Korea claims it can launch one at the U.S. To understand that country, one journalist went undercover as a schoolteacher. If she'd been caught ...

 

Speaker 6: I think that I would have been sent to [poo-lock 00:34:33] sentence, lifetime.

 

Al Letson: That's next, on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Byard Duncan: Byard Duncan here, from Reveal. A few years back, we released a big investigation into America's atomic veterans, the hundreds of thousands of service members who witnessed nuclear tests after World War II and into the Cold War. Many of these vets suffer longterm health issues that they blame on radiation exposure. Stuff like lung problems, rashes, and cancer. And many haven't received compensation for their injuries or the recognition they've sought for decades. We produced a short documentary about this with the New York Times and the Retro Report. Later this week, we're going to release that video right into your podcast feed. So stay tuned.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

The winter Olympics in PyongChang, South Korea, have just wrapped up. One moment from the opening ceremonies gained worldwide attention. And no, I'm not talking about that oiled up guy from Tonga.

 

Speaker 7: The opening ceremony here at PyongChang, nearly 3,000 athletes competing from 92 different countries, but the spotlight at the opening cerem -

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 - 00:52:48]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 8: From 92 different countries, but the spotlight at the opening ceremony on the unexpected show of unity between North and South Korea.

 

Al Letson: The two countries marched under a unified Korean flag, and the leaders even shook hands. It all looked good on camera, but the tensions over North Korea's nuclear program haven't gone away.

 

Suki Kim: North Korea has basically been doing missile tests constantly.

 

Al Letson: That's journalist Suki Kim.

 

Suki Kim: I mean their latest nuclear test was September, and yet now we have like a happy, together Korea moment. First of all, it doesn't really make sense. Second, that just legitimizes North Korea.

 

Al Letson: Suki wanted to know what life in North Korea was like, so in 2011 she did something really dangerous, she went undercover, taking a job as an English teacher at a private college. A Christian group ran the school. They promised to leave religion out of their lessons. Her time there gives us a glimpse into one of the most isolated countries in the world, and helps answer the question; how big of a nuclear threat is North Korea? The moment she arrived on campus, she began to understand what it was like living under the great leader.

 

Suki Kim: It was this military compound. There were about 30 foreigners teaching who were all Evangelicals from around the world. I lived in a dormitory where my minder was living downstairs from me, so he watched me 24/7. All my classes were recorded and reported on, and I had to get every lesson plan approved by the North Korean staff, who also lived within that campus. I ended up living there for six months in Pyongyang and then I wrote a book called Without You, There Is No Us.

 

Al Letson: I read your book, it's just absolutely stunning.

 

Suki Kim: Oh thank you.

 

Al Letson: The school that you were teaching out was a boys school and the boys there were from the political elite families, and you actually lived on campus with them. What was that like?

 

Suki Kim: They were I guess age 19 and 20, so they were really young men, although they seemed so much younger the more I got to know them. A lot of it having to do with them being so infantilized. That sort of abuse and control do to people, because they have no agency.

 

Al Letson: In your book when you describe North Korea, the images that came to mind for me was something out of The Hunger Games, like a dystopian world where everybody kind of moves in one direction towards the great leader. Did you feel that way before you were undercover?

 

Suki Kim: Until you really live within the system, it's really hard to gauge what goes on and you know, that people are not allowed to leave, the foreigners really don't get to see anything that goes on there. Not for like three or four or five years. For 70 some years. It was far, far worse than I ever thought it was going to be.

 

Al Letson: There's no escape.

 

Suki Kim: There's no escape, but also how can a human life exist this way where everything works according to the great leader's system? It was horrifying.

 

Speaker 9: [Foreign language 00:39:24].

 

Al Letson: Suki heard reports about how the government installed speakers in every home to broadcast propaganda and how it built more than 35,000 statues of the great leaders; grandfather, father and son, across a country about the size of Kentucky.

 

Speaker 9: [Foreign language 00:39:49].

 

Al Letson: The whole time you were in North Korea, you weren't just teaching, so you're writing this book. How did you like hide the notes?

 

Suki Kim: I had to erase every trace from my computer and then I would put everything on USB sticks. I had them on my body at all times, wore them like a necklace and never was separated from my USB sticks.

 

Al Letson: You're going undercover with this brutal regime. You're reporting on them, you're writing stuff, if the regime found out, what do you think would have happened?

 

Suki Kim: That would have been spying right?

 

Al Letson: Right.

 

Suki Kim: So I think that I would have been sent to a gulag sentence, lifetime. That fear was just a bone chilling fear. Every second.

 

Al Letson: What kind of relationships did you form with the people there?

 

Suki Kim: You know, relationship was not allowed really, but because I lived with these young men and they were taken away from their home and living in this school led by foreigners, and I am a Korean-American among these foreigners, I think they got attached. At the same time I couldn't really trust them because they were also reporting on me as well. I was told. However, they're still kids. I made them do a lot of letter writing, because I was teaching English, and trying to find out what's going on in their world and slowly they did open up.

 

Al Letson: What surprised you about their lives?

 

Suki Kim: They were hilarious and just adorable and charming. Then, things would suddenly take a turn where there's, they lied all the time. You know, they lied about all sorts of things for no reason whatsoever. When your lie comes from the top every book, every music, every single thing they're ever exposed is basically a bunch of lies. You do wonder what happens to human psychology when you're in that for that long? In complete isolation.

 

Al Letson: Did you ever get the sense that like under all of the love for the great leader or the silence, did you ever get the feeling that under it all was discontentment?

 

Suki Kim: So people ask me that a lot. Did they know what's going on outside? You know, was there any sign of revolt there? The thing is, in that system, first of all you cannot be curious about the outside world. Even if you have an inkling, because if you are curious and you show that, then you would be punished. You're not only going to be sent to a gulag, but your family will be. What I found unfathomable there more and more and more was that thinking was simply not allowed, and there was also no time. You know, if you have duties all day long from like 5:30 until you go to bed, there's not a whole lot of time.

 

Al Letson: So, we've got Kim Jong Un in North Korea who has just launched some missiles that could possibly hit the United States. Then we've got Donald Trump who, different from any other American president before, has engaged with Kim Jong Un in a way that feels bombastic. I mean, are you scared that we're going to end up in a nuclear war?

 

Suki Kim: The only player who's new and totally different is Donald Trump. Kim Jong Un is not so different from his father and the grandfather who've held that position. So North Korean is doing what it's always been doing, those horrible statements he makes about threatening to bomb US, is the same as always. It's just making the news because Donald Trump comes back with the same kind of thing, on the same tone. His belligerent, very, very erratic messages are worrying because you know, wars do happen out of mistakes.

 

Al Letson: So you're not worried that Kim Jong Un actually wants to shoot a nuclear weapon, you just think it's all bravado.

 

Suki Kim: Well because they've always done that. I mean it's this threat of you know, war threat is what North Korean is. You know, my students, they didn't use the word classroom. They used the word platoon. They were brought up from day one as if war's going to happen tomorrow, so it's nothing new.

 

Al Letson: What about how the American government should approach North Korea?

 

Suki Kim: It would be disingenuous for me to even pretend that I have a solution, nobody has had a solution with this. You know, you're dealing with a nation that doesn't honor agreements. It's a land of lies. I think there is actually no other way but to put some resources to bring information into North Korea, which people do try, but none of it seems to work, but maybe a dribble is better than none.

 

Al Letson: Before we close, I want to go back to young men that you taught in Korea. Do you still miss them?

 

Suki Kim: I don't know if miss is the right word, you know, I mean from a journalists position to a source, they're not source, they're my subjects.

 

Al Letson: Suki, Suki, I'm reading the book, and you are falling in love with these kids like they're your children. I know that they're like, from a very journalist point of view, they're your subjects, but I'm reading the book and like, you are in love with these kids. I know you're in love with these kids because as you're writing it I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm in love with these kids."

 

Suki Kim: I think that that's what part of the embedded journalism is that you are such deep in that emotion and without that, I think that feelings cannot really be created in a way. You know, be written or described. There is a bit of a removal. I mean but a lot of it has to do with the fact that there's always sort of this kind of heartbreak in a way because their lives are just, I mean there's nothing happy about it. They live in North Korea, they're who they are. So I think there's always a sadness for that and I wish I never hear about them because I feel like if I ever hear about them it would be in a negative way. I wish they would just be safe, and do what would just keep them alive in that world.

 

Al Letson: Suki Kim talked to us from Seoul, South Korea. She's the author of Without You, There Is No Us. We spent most of the hour looking at nuclear threats, we want to end today's show with something different. Complete global disarmament.

 

Donald Trump: Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet sadly.

 

Al Letson: The thing is, it's not magic. It's work. In fact, even as the president has been Tweeting out threats about nuclear weapons a few folks at the state department have been designing a plan for a nuclear free future.

 

Mike Eddinger: It's not an easy problem.

 

Al Letson: Foreign service officer Mike Eddinger runs a small project with a long name, The International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification. Try saying that three times.

 

Mike Eddinger: You have to be able to verify that what you've done in reducing or eliminating weapons systems has actually taken place.

 

Al Letson: You have to convince other countries you've gotten rid of your nukes. This means Mike spends time coordinating with experts from 20-some countries. They get together and figure out exactly how to physically get rid of nuclear weapons in a verifiable way. It's tricky because no country wants another country to watch them take their weapons apart. This amazed me. Even in some distant future imagining that the politics have changed and we are all dismantling our nukes, preparing to destroy them, Mike says the assumption is that nations would keep their weapons hidden. Isn't the only reason you wouldn't want someone seeing is because you think one day you might have to have the nuclear weapon again?

 

Mike Eddinger: Well, you don't want others to be able to see that, particularly those that don't have them because of the potential that they could take that information and build a weapon.

 

Al Letson: It just, it seems to me like all of this is circular, right? Like we want to get rid of nuclear weapons, but we can't trust that the other side is going to get rid of nuclear weapons, and so if we can't trust that they're not going to get rid of them, we actually don't want to get rid of them.

 

Mike Eddinger: Well, and it's not even so much as can't trust, it's the old Ronald Regan mantra, "Trust, but verify."

 

Al Letson: So to verify, the project spent two years coming up with a very specific process. Imagine a nuclear weapon inside a big, sealed shipping container. Inspectors stand outside and take detailed measurements of radiation and explosives. The container is hauled away and the weapon is dismantled in secret. Then inspectors measure every component coming out to make sure that all the parts are accounted for. Bottom line, this is about coming up with tools the world could grab off the shelf when or really if there's ever a political agreement to get rid of nuclear weapons. Just personally, do you think it's possible that we'll get to a time when we don't have any nuclear weapons?

 

Mike Eddinger: I certainly don't know, I don't have a crystal ball. Frankly, I don't spend a lot of time focused on that, it's the practical work that if we're going to get there, you have to go through steps.

 

Al Letson: I told Mike I haven't worried about nuclear war since I was a kid, but now, I think about my kids and what they might be feeling. Do you have kids? How would you talk to them about this?

 

Mike Eddinger: I do. I'm the wrong guy to ask because I've been in the nuclear field for my entire adult life, and particularly as a guy who used to sit on alert in the ICBM world I have a somewhat gallows humor when it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons issues, so-

 

Al Letson: I think you're the exact right person to ask because you know more than me. I want you to give me something to tell my kids, like, "Ah, I don't think it's going to happen," or tell me like I need to build a fallout shelter, like help me out.

 

Mike Eddinger: Well, I'll be honest with you, I have two teenage boys and I have, the list of issues that I have to really worry about with them is so long and this is so far down on that list, that it's nothing that I routinely talk about at home with my kids.

 

Al Letson: This work Mike is doing started under President Obama, for the first two years Russia and China participated as observers, but they're not participating anymore. Iran and North Korea were never invited. The Trump administration has promised to support this work, even as it seeks a trillion dollars to modernize the US nuclear arsenal in the face of perceived threats.

 

Mike Eddinger: The security situation right now internationally is not great and our look is much farther down the road.

 

Al Letson: It's been just over 70 years since the first nuclear bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mike's work reminds me that people have been working to get rid of these weapons for almost as long. Our lead producer for today's show was Emily Harris. She had help from Anayasi Diaz Cortez and Amy Walters. Bret Meyers edited this episode. Reese Erlix reporting from Iran was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crises Reporting. Our production manager is [inaudible 00:52:00]. Today's show was mixed by [inaudible 00:52:02].

 

Along with our sound design team the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help from Cat Shugnet, our acting CEO is Christa Sharferburg. Our executive producer's Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado, Lightening. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

  Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 - 00:52:48]