The long-kept secret behind primitive North Korea’s modern nuclear weaponry


The success of North Korea’s first true intercontinental ballistic missile, possibly capable of reaching Alaska, has sparked speculation over how the isolated country managed to advance the technology so much faster than expected.

Experts say available images of Pyongyang’s missiles show obvious Russian traits, but most likely they were developed with the country’s own capability, based on technology obtained and studied for decades.

“All the missiles so far revealed by Pyongyang could be clearly traced back to a couple of older Russian models they acquired decades ago,” said Zhao Tong, a fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua centre of Global Policy.

That includes the latest Hwasong-14, tested on July 4 with an estimated range of more than 6,000km, which qualifies as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The liquid-propellant engine of the Hwasong-14, as well as its predecessor, the 3,700km-range Hwasong-12, both originate from an old Soviet R-27 Zyb missile, Zhao said.

The Hwasong-14 just added some additional stage-2 engines to the -12. And a variation of the same engine – the Isayev 4D10 – is also used on Musudan, the 2,500km IRBM, or Hwasong-10, as it is officially named, according to Zhao.

It is estimated that Pyongyang began to possess the R-27 technologies in 1992. The chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union provided then-DPRK leader Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, with the chance to obtain the Soviets’ R-27 Zyb, an SLBM that is capable of carrying 650kg of load, including a nuclear warhead, and has a 2,400km range.

Sun Xingjie, a Korean politics expert at Jilin University, said that as early as the Cold War era, North Korea had made assembling a nuclear weapon a fundamental state strategy, and had received significant help from the Soviet Union and later Russia.

“All three generations of leaders of the Kim family, especially Kim Jong-un lately, had put great national resources into the research and development,” said Sun.

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The USSR provided its communist ally with education and training, expert advisers and even blueprints, according to Zhao. North Korea initially based its primary missile development in the 1970s on Soviet Scud missiles. From there, it developed its early Rodong and Taepodong series rockets.

Generations of talented North Korean engineers have been sent to study at Moscow’s nuclear and missile research institutions such as the renowned Joint Institute for Nuclear Research Dubna. Later these technicians became the core members of their own country’s development programme.

Andrei Chang, founder of military magazine Kanwa Asian Defence, said a key reason behind Pyongyang’s fast progress is that the country’s missile experts are not only well-educated and bright, but also are in the habit of “working hard without any complaints”.

“Scholars from Russia’s military academies told me that in the 1980s missile and engineering department [of the Soviet era], the most excellent and hardworking students were all from North Korea,” Chang said.

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The regime also hired a number of Russian experts after the fall of the USSR. In 1992 it was reported that a group of Russian scientists and missile specialists was arrested while attempting to travel to Pyongyang, Meanwhile, many missile engineers had already been working in the DPRK, according to a report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank.

“It is likely through long research, the North Korean engineers made a major breakthrough over some key technological difficulties,” Zhao said. “But I don’t see any indication that North Korea acquired important new technology in recent years.”

Pyongyang’s recent remarkable improvement in rocket science also included successful tests of the Pukguksong-1 and 2, which use solid fuel engines more advanced than that of the liquid-fuelled R-27. International observers have not completely agreed on the origin and exact developmental path of these missiles.

There was speculation that the Pukguksong-1, a submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), might have been developed with help from China’s SLBM. But pictures of the Pukguksong launches show the designs also bear strong resemblance to the R-27.

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“From what we see so far, North Korea worked out the technologies of solid-fuelled engines by repeatedly copying the Russian liquid fuelled engines, and based on that they moved on the solid-fuelled,” said military commentator Song Zhongping.

“No significant similarity to Chinese models can be found in North Korean missiles. And the reason is simple – China never wants North Korea to possess and develop advanced missiles,” said Song.

Pakistan, an ally of Beijing, is also unlikely to have passed on any China-originated missile technology to North Korea, although they did cooperate on nuclear weapons for some time before the United Nations imposed sanctions on Pyongyang, he said.

But the North Korean leaders defied the objection from Beijing despite the strict sanctions. They have been extremely determined to become a “leading missile power in Asia”, Song said.

North Korea has no claim to that status yet, as its R-27 technologies, developed by the Soviets from 1968 through 1988, still trail those in the most advanced missiles of the US, Russia, China, and even India and Israel.

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However, Pyongyang has exchanged missile technology with Iran, and helped Tehran with its missile and rocket development. The Hwasong missile family and Iran’s later Shahab series are obviously related. Some R-27 technologies have been also seen on Iranian rockets Safir and Simorgh.

The United Nations’ sanctions and trade embargo on missile-related electronic devices and fuel-related chemical substances has forced Pyongyang to find illegal smuggling channels or use civilian products as substitutes. That has been caused problems that affect the success rate and potential for mass producing ICBMs, Song noted.

Nevertheless, the efforts of North Korean scientists already have made the Hwasong-14 capable of reaching the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. It is only a matter of time before the North Koreans develop a nuclear warhead that will be loaded on these vehicles.

“They are moving closer to doing it, based on the existing progress and capability,” Chang warned.