How a homemade tool helped North Korea's
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[October 12, 2017]
By James Pearson and Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL, (Reuters) - In 2009, a pop video
from North Korea celebrated a new national hero - one that outside
experts would later realize was at the heart of the secretive state's
banned nuclear and missile programs.
That hero, widely available in factories across the world, was the
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine.
Big, grey and boxy, CNC machines use pre-programmed guides to produce
intricate parts for everything from automobiles and mobile phones to
furniture and clothes. They offer accuracy that human machine tool
operators are unable to achieve.
In North Korea, thanks to a combination of homemade technology and
reverse engineering, the machines now play a critical role in the
weapons programs. They allow Kim Jong Un to build nuclear bombs and
missiles without relying as heavily on outside technical aid or imports.
Nuclear weapons experts say this has helped him accelerate missile and
nuclear testing despite international sanctions on the transfer of
"North Korea's centrifuges and new missiles all depend on components
made with CNC machine tools," said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia
Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic
Studies at Monterey, California.
"(They) are the essential underlying technology for producing missiles
and nuclear weapons," said Lewis.
Since 1996, CNC machines have been included in the Wassenaar Arrangement
– an international arms control regime aimed at stopping the
proliferation of equipment with both civilian and military uses. North
Korea is not a signatory.
The country's celebrations of its CNC technology have been fulsome.
Hundreds of dancers in luminous orange and green performed the CNC pop
song, titled "Break through the cutting edge," at a Korean Workers'
Party celebration in 2010. In 2012, the year the South Korean hit
"Gangnam Style" was released, the North's CNC title was on karaoke
machines nationwide, according to Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based
company that trains North Koreans in business skills. The official video
for the song opens with a long-range North Korean rocket soaring into a
North Korea likely started to develop its own CNC machines in the early
1990s as part of a drive to build sophisticated missiles and nuclear
weapons, nuclear experts say. It probably learned how to make them by
taking apart machines it had imported from the Soviet Union.
Its first homemade CNC machine was introduced in 1995. Former leader Kim
Jong Il gave the machine the "Ryonha" brand, according to a 2009 article
in the country's official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. That was the first
time state media mentioned the technology.
By 2009, the machines had become a mainstay of North Korean propaganda,
as Pyongyang launched a nationwide campaign to boost domestic industry.
Sanctions were mounting after its second nuclear test and a long-range
missile launch that year.
At the time, arms control experts raised concerns about a visit by
former leader Kim Jong Il to a North Korean factory where homemade CNC
machines appeared to be producing aluminum tubes. These could be used
for nuclear centrifuges.
"By around 2010, it seemed they were capable of manufacturing various
types of CNC machines," said Kim Heung-gwang, a North Korean defector
who taught at Pyongyang's Hamhung Computer Technology University before
defecting to South Korea.
But it wasn't until 2013 that the Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture
Corporation, which produced the machines, was blacklisted by the U.N.
Security Council for supporting the weapons programs.
[to top of second column]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspects the January 18 General
Machine Plant in Pyongyang, North Korea in this undated photo
released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on
August 10, 2016. KCNA/via REUTERS
And it was only in August this year that U.S. intelligence officials
told Reuters North Korea likely has the ability to produce its own
missile engines themselves. (Full Story)
Now, Kim Heung-gwang estimates, North Korea has about 15,000 CNC
machines. He bases this on North Korean state media reports and
photos as well as interviews with more than a dozen defectors who
were scientists, professors or factory workers.
Pyongyang hailed the homemade machines as a triumph for its
governing ideology of "Juche", which champions self-sufficiency. But
that wasn't strictly true.
In August 2016, state media released photos of Kim Jong Un visiting
a factory using CNC machines with the logo of Swiss engineering firm
ABB ABB.UL, one of the leading players in the global CNC machine
market. It's not clear when or how the machine reached North Korea.
ABB said the firm respects all applicable trade sanctions against
North Korea, and undertakes not to deliver ABB equipment to the
country. "That said, we cannot rule out that some of our equipment
may have been resold to DPR of Korea without our knowledge or
permission," the company said in response to a Reuters inquiry,
using North Korea's official title.
A United Nations panel monitoring sanctions on North Korea said in a
report this year that Tengzhou Keyongda CNC Machine Tools Co of
China had been a supplier of Pyongyang's new CNC machines. A sales
representative for Tengzhou Keyongda told Reuters the company
stopped selling CNC machines to North Korea four years ago, and no
longer maintains trade relations with the country.
Despite sanctions, CNC machines are commonplace across North Korean
manufacturing and can be brought in through China and Russia, said
Lee Choon-geun, a senior fellow at the Science and Technology Policy
Institute in South Korea.
The biggest loophole has been that while some CNC machines are
banned because they can have both military and civilian functions,
most serve civilian industry. "Given their dual-use capability, you
could even import the machines for other purposes, take them to
pieces and use them however you want," said Lee.
The CNC song highlights this in its opening line: "Whatever it is,
once we put our mind to it, there's a program to make it," it says.
(By James Pearson and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Additional reporting by
Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON, Lusha Zhang in
BEIJING; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Lincoln Feast and Sara Ledwith)
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