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North got much of its missile tech from China, says expert

Dec 22,2017
North Korea appears to have acquired key technology for its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program by 2012 with the help of China, according to a local military expert who conducted a complete enumeration of 549 thesis papers authored by North Korean scientists and filed in the Scopus citation database from 2007 to 2016.

Kwon Yong-soo, a former professor at Korea National Defense University in Nonsan, South Chungcheong, highlighted North Korea’s “highly successful” research on missile parts and materials over the past decade, chiefly electromagnetic shields, composite materials and silicon carbide.

The regime’s study on advanced thermal protection and carbon fiber particularly hint at its effort to achieve atmospheric re-entry, said Kwon, when an ICBM has to withstand nearly 7,000 degrees Celsius (12,632 degrees Fahrenheit). The sophisticated technology is one of the last remaining hurdles blocking North Korea from mastering its ICBM program, and according to the North’s track record of research, it appears the country chose to focus on nano-cable and reinforced ultra-high temperature composites.

North Korean scientists also delved into nanoscale composites and high-strength carbon fiber research, which are used to reduce a missile’s weight so that the projectile can carry more fuel and travel longer. This explains how Pyongyang’s missiles managed to travel unprecedented distances in recent tests, said Kwon.

“I didn’t see much research from the North on heat resistance after 2012,” said Kwon. “It could be that the regime had successfully acquired all the needed technology by then.”

A thesis on a missile control fin, authored by a man named Kwon Chol-ho at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, implies that North Korea was developing missile wings, known as canards, to improve ICBM precision, Kwon analyzed.

“The North has done a lot of research on control and systems engineering as well as electronics,” said Choe Hyeon-gyu from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information. “Since Kim Jong-un rose to power, the North has also been actively researching in the fields of computer science, math and physics. They’re more interested in applied science rather than basic science.”

According to Choe, 88.7 percent of thesis papers authored by North Korean scientists were done in collaboration with foreign researchers, 80.9 percent of whom were from China. Some 212 North Korean scientists are known to have lived abroad, 192 in China alone.

Four South Koreans were found to have jointly researched with the North, but Choe claimed none were involved in anything relevant to missile development, adding that in some cases, researchers aren’t informed about their global partners during the study.

Kim Jina, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, pointed out that Resolution 2321 of the UN Security Council, signed in December 2015, bans countries from doing scientific work with the North in sensitive fields.

BY PARK YONG-HAN, LEE CHUL-JAE [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]