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The brains behind the missiles: North Korea’s top-secret weapons designers

FILE PHOTO: A tactical guided missile is launched, according to state media, at an undisclosed location in North Korea, in this photo released January 17, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS

North Korea’s recent missile tests, which include hypersonic missiles, have highlighted the importance of the country’s missile engineers and scientists, who are well-known within his regime but unknown to outsiders.

The news: Analysts believe Kim Jong Un is taking measures to institutionalise the missile troops, indicating that he intends to make them a long-term, operational part of his military strategy.

  • The names and positions of mid-level and working-level scientists and technicians involved in missile research and development are largely unknown.
  • According to analysts, because of the time and effort devoted to educate and train them, these individuals appear to have guaranteed job security, and they are confined to special districts where they are neither a defection risk nor a political or social annoyance to the government.
  • “Unlike economic cadres or even military commanders, this is a population that is not easily replaced,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
  • Many of them are students at Kim Jong Un National Defense University, a North Korean defense-related science and technology school that has recently launched a college specialising in hypersonic missile technology.
  • According to Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organisation based in Arlington, Virginia, scientists and engineers often appear divided into competing teams designing similar types of weapons, allowing them to go down multiple paths to see which technology is the most promising.
  • North Korean scientists collaborated with researchers from other countries to co-write at least 100 published articles with identifiable significance for dual-use technology, weapons of mass destruction, or other military purposes, according to a 2018 study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).

Who’s who: Kim Jong Un entrusts the leadership of North Korea’s rapidly expanding missile programme to three key figures.

  • Ri Pyong Chol, a former top air force commander, Kim Jong Sik, a seasoned rocket scientist, and Jang Chang Ha, the chief of a weapons development and procurement centre, are among those involved.
  • According to Gause, a fourth official, Pak Jong Chon, the Chief of the General Staff, has taken on a higher-profile role in the Military Industry Department (MID), which is in charge of strategic weapon manufacture.
  • In the absence of Kim Jong Un, who did not attend any missile launches in 2021 before witnessing one of the hypersonic missile launches in January, Pak monitored many recent testing.
  • Yu Jim was also appointed to lead the MID last year. According to Madden, Yu was once a representative of North Korea’s top official arms dealer in Iran.
  • North Korea’s missile development is overseen by the Academy of National Defense Science (NADS), sometimes known as the Second Academy of Natural Sciences (SANS).
  • Madden claims that who is claimed to have attended a test can often reveal the state of a weapon’s development.

In addition: North Korea may integrate additional elements of its Strategic Forces back under GSD as it completes its missile and nuclear arsenal, signalling that it has moved to an operational role, according to Madden.

  • According to observers, North Korea’s missile programme has origins in aid from the Soviet Union and later Russia, and the boosters used to push the latest hypersonic warheads are identical to Soviet designs.
  • The extent to which this aid has been maintained during the 1990s is a point of contention.
  • North Koreans affiliated to the NADS in China and Russia continue to purchase materials and technical information for North Korea’s WMD and missile programmes, according to the latest US sanctions designations, with the help of at least one Russian telecommunications business and a Russian individual.
  • North Korea’s success in testing, according to Markus Schiller, a missile analyst stationed in Europe, indicates that the country has received outside assistance.

North Korean missiles have failed more frequently under Kim Jong Un than in the past, suggesting that the younger Kim was testing more homegrown designs than his predecessors.

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