Kim Jong Un beamed from his palatial rostrum as the world’s largest mobile intercontinental ballistic missile rolled across Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square shortly after midnight on October 10. Here was indisputable evidence of North Korea’s rapid progress in the country’s nuclear technology.
The next day, when slickly produced footage of the military parade was broadcast from Pyongyang, weapons and security analysts from Seoul to Washington were left wondering: how has this poor and isolated nation managed to build weapons of mass destruction?
The secretive state’s decades in the shadows has resulted in gaps of knowledge of its weapons programme, experts said. Many agree, however, that indigenous weapons development is progressing at a breakneck speed, a change from years of heavy dependence on foreign help.
“The North Koreans aren’t setting out to reinvent the wheel if they don’t have to,” said Ankit Panda from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The fact remains they are capable of crossing these technical milestones that, frankly, seem remarkable to many outside the country.”
Laying the groundwork
China, the then Soviet Union and Russia exported weapons to North Korea throughout much of the second half of the 20th century, data from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute show.
The arsenal and blueprints were bolstered by nuclear material technology gained in the 1990s via Pakistani physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s proliferation network, as well as direct knowhow from Russian — often former Soviet — scientists. That gave Pyongyang vital technologies that it re-engineered, setting up the Kim regime to finally clasp the deterrent it believed would guarantee its security.
North Korea also spent decades laying the groundwork to improve its own manufacturing capability. A 2019 report by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies identified a series of factories that North Korea tried to disguise for years.
The sites include operations producing vehicles, computer chips and computer numerical control (CNC) machines. They are each “linked to the missile programme in one way or another”, said Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler, the report’s authors.
Links between Tehran and Pyongyang have been identified by the US Treasury. Mr Panda described the relationship as “back and forth”, explaining: “There are certain areas where the North Koreans benefit from the Iranians. And there are certain areas where the Iranians benefit from the North Koreans.”
Nurturing talent in science and technology
For 10 years, arms embargoes have prohibited shipments of big conventional weapons to Pyongyang. Sipri experts do not believe that North Korea acquired the new weapons clandestinely.
Still, the October parade showcased not only advances in the ICBM programme but across many facets of military equipment, said Joost Oliemans, an independent researcher focused on North Korea’s military. From missile transport vehicles and engines to various conventional weapons, including an assault rifle fitted with a grenade launcher, the North Koreans appear to be matching designs used by modern militaries around the world.
While there are still “lots of missing parts of the story”, there has been a strategic devotion of resources and emphasis on nurturing scientific and technological talent since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, said Mr Panda.
North Korea’s Kim Chaek University of Technology ranked eighth in the world at the International Collegiate Programming Contest last year, beating top institutions such as Oxford and Harvard, noted Martyn Williams, an analyst with 38 North, a Washington think-tank.
Despite Mr Kim’s pledges to pursue greater economic development, military spending levels have not been sacrificed under his leadership, said Haena Jo, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a UK think-tank.
Foreign connections help evade sanctions
In cases where military scientists and engineers cannot access resources or technology, Pyongyang leans on diplomats across the world and shady trading companies, mostly based in China, as well as an army of hackers.
These foreign networks play a critical role in helping the regime dodge wide-ranging UN sanctions, particularly in procuring dual-use technologies, according to UN documents.
The UN panel of experts monitoring North Korean sanctions-busting activities raised concerns again this year that such networks were still being used for procuring “chokepoint items”. These included speciality materials and high-tech devices “from which machinery and certain components could be used in the WMD programme”.
Hacking or information exchange?
The pace of North Korea’s weapons development and the falling failure rates of its missile tests leave unanswered questions over the extent and source of North Korea’s capabilities.
“Analysts tend to be quite surprised about what technologies they can field and in what numbers,” said Mr Oliemans.
There seem to be several alternative explanations, Mr Oliemans said. “Either they are not receiving any technology and it is all ‘smoke and mirrors’ . . . or somehow they are spying on other countries . . . and it’s possible that they got these technologies through hacking, or some kind of information exchange programme between North Korea and countries like China and Russia,” he said.
Mr Panda played down the idea that Pyongyang was simply reliant on being sold weapons systems “wholesale, by unscrupulous criminals”.
“Even if even if those kinds of transfers happened once upon a time . . . they don’t explain the state of the North Korean programme today; where they’re able to manufacture missiles in large numbers, and certainly test them in a way that least indicates the outside world that these are serious programmes,” he said.