World News

Rocket Men: The Team Building North Korea’s Nuclear Missile

Posted December 16, 2017 2:27 p.m. EST

When the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrated the launch of a powerful new missile last month, he was surrounded by a group of top scientists and officials. State media did not identify the men, but they have all been seen with Kim before.

These men — known by nicknames such as the “nuclear duo” and the “missile quartet” — have built an intercontinental ballistic missile that appears capable of hitting any city in the United States, a feat of physics and engineering that has stunned the world.

At only 33, Kim has been ruthless about consolidating power, executing scores of senior officials, including his own uncle. But he has showered his regime’s scientists with incentives and adulation, turning them into public heroes and symbols of national progress.

“We have never heard of him killing scientists,” said Choi Hyun-kyoo, a senior researcher in South Korea who runs NK Tech, a database of North Korean scientific publications. “He is someone who understands that trial and error are part of doing science.”

Analysts are still trying to explain how North Korea managed to overcome decades of international sanctions and make so much progress so quickly. But it is clear the nation has accumulated a significant scientific foundation despite its backward image.

Each of its six nuclear tests has been more powerful than the last, boosting Kim’s stature at home and his leverage abroad. Still, it is unclear if the North has mastered the technology needed to keep a nuclear warhead intact as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

Science Worship

Kim has elevated science as an ideal in the regime’s propaganda and put his fondness for scientists and engineers on prominent display across North Korea. That is a departure from the practice of his predecessor and father, Kim Jong Il, who instead emphasized cinema and the arts as propaganda tools.

Four years after taking power in 2011, Kim Jong Un opened a six-lane avenue in Pyongyang known as Future Scientists Street, with gleaming apartment towers for scientists, engineers and their families.

He also opened a sprawling complex shaped like an atom that showcases the nation’s achievements in nuclear science. Extravagant galas are held to celebrate scientific progress.

There is little doubt what is behind Kim’s passion for science. In ubiquitous propaganda posters, North Korean rockets soar into space and crash into the U.S. Capitol.

And after successful tests, scientists and engineers are honored with huge outdoor rallies. On their way to Pyongyang, their motorcades pass cheering crowds.

“They are already pretty sophisticated in metallurgy, mechanical engineering, and to some extent chemistry,” all areas tied to the nation’s civilian and military needs, said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.

North Korea has imported scientific papers and journals from Japan for decades. And when it sends students abroad, it orders them to copy scientific literature and bring it home, said Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch website.

U.N. sanctions prohibit the teaching of scientific material with military applications to North Korean students. Yet North Korea still sends students to countries such as China, India and even Germany, according to analysts and U.N. reports.

The internet has also been a gold mine for the North. While the state blocks public access, it allows elite scientists to scour the web for open-source data under the watch of security agents. The North has also built digital libraries of approved material that are accessible across the country.

North Korea funnels its top science students into military projects. Those selected for the nuclear and missile program are relocated from their hometowns and allowed to return for visits only with government minders, according to defectors and analysts.

But they are also given better food rations — and access to weapons designs and components obtained by the nation’s spies and hackers, who have focused on the former Soviet republics.

Familiar Faces

Scientists and engineers also enjoyed special privileges under Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, as he struggled to rebuild North Korea from the ruins of the Korean War. He embraced those trained in Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony and later sent hundreds of students to the Soviet Union, East Germany and other socialist states.

One of them was So Sang Guk, a nuclear scientist who emerged as a key figure in the nation’s nuclear program but seems to have retired.

Since taking power, Kim Jong Un appears to have overseen a generational shift at the top of the weapons program, elevating a group of scientists and officials about whom little is known.

He tends to assign officials to different projects, letting them compete for his attention and favor. But analysts have identified six figures who have repeatedly appeared alongside Kim at key moments — four tied to missile development and two associated with nuclear tests.

Two members of the “missile quartet” are scientists, according to state media. Jang Chang Ha, 53, is president of the Academy of National Defense Science, and Jon Il Ho, 61, is commonly described as an “official in the field of scientific research.”

Ri Pyong Chol appears to be the quartet’s highest-ranking member. A former air force commander, he serves as first deputy director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s munitions industry department.

Kim Jong Sik, 49, first began appearing with Kim Jong Un in February 2016 and has an engineering background. His rise has coincided with an acceleration of test launches, but he and Ri did not attend last month’s launch.

Ri Hong Sop, the director of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Institute, appears to be a leading figure in the nuclear program. He has been blacklisted by the United Nations since 2009.

Hong Sung Mu, the other member of the “nuclear duo,”is a former chief engineer at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the birthplace of the North’s nuclear weapons program.

North Korea has also recruited scientists from the former Soviet Union, offering salaries as high as $10,000 per month, according to Lee Yun Keol, a defector who runs the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center in Seoul, South Korea, and has studied the history of the North’s nuclear program. In 1992, a plane carrying 64 rocket scientists from Moscow was stopped before departing for North Korea. It is not clear how many, if any, former Soviet scientists made it to North Korea in the decades since.

Theodore A. Postol, a professor emeritus of science, technology and international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the North has “this fantastic record for flying rockets the first time and having them succeed.”

“We think it’s because they had rocket motors and designs that were basically Russian designs, and they had the expertise of Russian engineers who knew how to solve the problems,” he said.

Father Figure

Little is left to chance in propaganda related to the weapons program. Even the smallest of details can be laden with significance.

“By launching rockets and treating scientists like stars, Kim Jong Un gives his people a sense of progress,” Lee said. “It’s not just a military project but also a political stratagem.”

Kim’s annual visit to his grandfather’s mausoleum is the most important ritual of his dynastic regime. The missile quartet’s proximity to him at the July event was a sign of their high status. In photos from the event, missile experts could be seen sharing cigarettes with Kim after last month’s missile launch — an almost unimaginable privilege in a nation where he is portrayed as a godlike figure.

Perhaps the most surprising photo came in March, when Kim carried an unidentified official on his back while celebrating the ground test of a new rocket engine.

The image evoked an old Korean tradition in which young men give their aging parents piggyback rides as a symbolic gesture of gratitude for the hardship they have endured for their children. But others say the image took on a different meeting and Kim was actually playing the parent, carrying the scientist on his back as a father might a child.

In general, Kim is presented in the regime’s propaganda as a father figure — a national patriarch whom the public is supposed to obey without question. That makes the symbolism of his interactions with these scientists and engineers even more striking.

In traditional Korean culture, it is generally inappropriate for a son to smoke with his father or even with a teacher. One would only do so with great reluctance — and gratitude — at the elder’s insistence. In effect, Kim is insisting that these scientists take a bow.

But even as he honors these men and celebrates their accomplishments, they remain bit players on the stage. Every scientist in North Korea, no matter how important, must credit Kim for his successes, just as the nation’s athletes never fail to cite him as inspiration for their achievements at the Olympics and other competitions.

In the end, the real star of the nuclear weapons program is Kim himself.