Explanation: The minds behind the missiles: N.Korea’s secret weapon developers


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

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SEOUL, Jan 24 (Reuters) – North Korea’s flurry of new missile tests, including what it calls “hypersonic” weapons, has underscored the importance of the country’s missile engineers and scientists, a group very prominent in his government but opaque to foreigners. .

Analysts say Kim Jong Un appears to be taking steps to institutionalize the missile forces, signaling his likely intention to make them a long-term operational part of his military plans. Here’s what we know — and what we don’t know — about these key employees.


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Very little is known about the names and positions of mid-level and operational-level scientists and technicians involved in missile research and development.

Analysts say these people appear to have guaranteed job security due to the resources and effort put into educating and training them, and are sequestered in special districts so they are neither a defection risk. nor a political or social nuisance for the regime.

“Unlike economic executives or even military commanders, this is a population that is not easily replaceable,” said Michael Madden, North Korean leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

Many of them attend the Kim Jong Un National Defense University, a training ground for North Korean defense science and technology specialists that reportedly added a college focused on “hypersonic missile technology”.

Scientists and engineers often seem split into competing teams designing similar types of weapons, allowing them to take multiple paths to see which technology holds the most promise, said Ken Gause, director of the international affairs group at the NAC. , a non-profit research organization. and analytics organization based in Arlington, Virginia.

A 2018 study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) found that North Korean scientists had worked with researchers from other countries to co-author at least 100 published papers with identifiable significance for technologies at dual use, weapons of mass destruction or other military purposes.


Kim Jong Un relies on three high-profile people to run the secretive country’s fast-accelerating missile program.

Among them, Ri Pyong Chol, a former high-ranking Air Force general; Kim Jong Sik, a seasoned rocket scientist; and Jang Chang Ha, the head of a weapons development and supply center.

A fourth official – Pak Jong Chon, the chief of the General Staff – has also assumed a more prominent role in the Military Industry Department (MID), which is responsible for the production of strategic weapons, said Gause said.

“We’ve seen a lot of change in the military industry over the past few years,” Gause said.

Pak has overseen many recent tests in the absence of Kim Jong Un, who did not witness any missile launches in 2021, before observing one of the hypersonic missile launches in January.

Last year also saw the appointment of Yu Jim as head of MID. Yu was previously a representative of North Korea’s main arms dealer in Iran, Madden said.


The National Academy of Defense Sciences (NADS), also known as the Second Academy of Natural Sciences (SANS), oversees missile development in North Korea.

Madden said the development status of a weapon can often be guessed from who witnessed a test.

An event where the only personnel are from NADS/SANS means that the system is still in the research and development phase, for example. If an event combines NADS and the 2nd Economic Committee, it often means the system is moving from development to production and manufacturing.

Finally, if Army General Staff Department (GSD) personnel witness a test, such as the recent Mobile Train Missile, it usually indicates that the system is complete and will be deployed.

There are early signals that North Korea is completing its missile and nuclear arsenal, it may be folding more elements of its strategic forces under GSD, signaling that it has shifted to an operational role, Madden added.


Analysts say North Korea’s missile program has its roots in aid it received from the Soviet Union and then Russia, and the thrusters involved in propelling the latest hypersonic warheads are similar to Soviet designs.

There is some debate about the extent to which this aid has continued since the 1990s.

According to the latest US sanctions designations, NADS-linked North Koreans in China and Russia continue to procure equipment and technical information for North Korea’s WMD and missile programs, aided by at least one Russian telecommunications company and one Russian national.

Markus Schiller, a missile expert based in Europe, argued that North Korea’s success in testing suggests it has had outside support.

Schiller notes, however, that under Kim Jong Un, North Korean missiles failed more often than in the past, suggesting that the young Kim was testing more local designs than his predecessors.

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Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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