The Juchefication of North Korea’s Missile Programme

Late last year Khrustalev Vladimir reported on a visit to North Korea where spoke to representatives of the National Aerospace Development Administration, which oversees North Korea’s space programme. What grabbed a lot of people’s attention was that the representatives he spoke to revealed that North Korea plans to launch a communications satellite, of over 1,000kg, to geostationary orbit in 2018.

We have known for a while that North Korea has planned to launch a satellite to a geostationary orbit, but the revelation of the planned timing and payload mass was quite noteworthy given the recent test of the Hwasong-15 ICBM the first stage booster of which is powered by a two “March 18 Revolution” gimbaled engine cluster. Then over the new year period we saw North Korean propaganda, especially in a new year concert, place a lot of emphasis on its space programme which instantly reminded me of Vladimir’s report.

There’s an interesting passage to Vladimir’s report that struck me then and strikes me now

I was told that the space industry is undergoing “juchefication.” This means maximum technological support for their own scientific and industrial base in terms of equipment and components. The systems for tracking space objects, including special radars, are designed and produced independently

It will be interesting to see the SLV that launches the geostationary communication satellite into orbit. Some reports I have seen argue that North Korea will launch the geostationary satellite in September this year. However, we might not have long to wait for a peek into what juchefication means in this context. Just published satellite imagery by 38North of the Sohae space launch centre shows recent activity, although not conversant with preparation for a space launch nonetheless it is suggestive of preparations for a rocket engine/s static hot test.

It would be churlish to enter into detailed speculation, however it is interesting to observe that the Chinese CZ-3 or Long March 3 SLV, which was capable of delivering a 1,500 kg payload to geosynchronous orbit, third stage was powered by a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen cryogenic engine. The third stage was a major advance in China’s space programme, and it was the first employment of cryogenic propellants by China. The first and second stage of the CZ-3 was based on the first and second stages of the DF-5 ICBM, so employed hypergolic propellants. North Korea may employ a similar set up.

The new year concert saw frivolous media reports about a looming North Korean space launch acting as an ICBM test in disguise, as if North Korea hasn’t already tested ICBMs out in the open.

At any rate, what I would like to briefly write about is the point regarding the “juchefication” of North Korea’s space industry in the context of its missile programme. This is of interest because of the debate on the advances that North Korea has made in its missile programme, sparked again by a recent report in The New York Times. I regard the essential advances to have occurred indigenously, which is what the expression “juchefication” means, and Vladimir’s report, as far as I can see, lends support to this thesis.

I would agree with the view made by analysts that The New York Times report seeks to shift the blame for poor North Korea policy, of successive administrations, from policy makers to the intelligence community. But to return to juchefication.

North Korea in March 2017 hot tested the so called “March 18 Revolution Engine,” which is the main engine of the Hwasong-12 IRBM and Hwasong-14 ICBM and main engines of the Hwasong-15 ICBM. When it did so the North Korean news agency, KCNA, carried a press statement which stated that

“This successful test has completely got rid of the dogmatism, conservatism, formalism and dependency on imitating other nations’ technologies.”

The usage of the terms “dogmatism, conservatism and formalism” has long intrigued me. These concepts are very important analytical building blocks in the North Korean ideology of self reliance known as Juche. We, of course, have an understanding of what those concepts entail but to understand them in the North Korean context it is necessary to engage in what Wittgenstein might have referred to as a “language game,” for those concepts are intrinsic to North Korea’s epistemology or theory of knowledge.

So much so that they find their definition in North Korea’s official “Dictionary of Philosophy.” Conservativism, in the North Korean conceptual scheme, is strongly related to “empiricism” which the Dictionary of Philosophy defines thus;

“The thought and behaviour pattern that ignores scientific researches, and creative attitude and persists in the old experiences. Empiricism exaggerates the significance of old experiences, tries to fit the knowledge gained from experiences into the newly developed realities through stale formulas. It prevents the correct awareness of realities by slighting the new theories and thus hinders our progress.”

Reverse engineering Soviet derived engines, especially Scud based technology and R-27 Zyb 4D10 engines, in support of an ICBM programme would be a type of trial and error empiricism based on old experiences rather than an indigenous pursuit based on scientific first principles. That is what the March 18 Revolution statement is saying, it seems to me.

The concepts of conservativism, dogmatism and formalism have played important roles in North Korea’s political and ideological history. The Kim il Sung-isation of the Korean Workers Party was a process begun in earnest during, not after, the Korean War, and the concept of “formalism” was enunciated in key speeches by Kim il Sung at plenums of the Central Committee in December 1950, November 1951, and December 1952. Kim argued that party work was characterised by stale formulas, that is that party activities were conducted too mechanically and so party ideas had not sufficiently penetrated into the minds of the masses. In an April 1955 speech on ideological education Kim stated that party organisations, especially cells, “had failed to get rid of such formalistic methods of political education as passing on and cramming the teaching material into the heads of Party members in the manner of a Talmudic service.”

Formalism is a blind adherence to prevailing procedure, algorithmic if you will, that stifles innovation and creativity. Simply following the reverse engineering approaches that hitherto characterised North Korea’s missile and space programmes is, thereby, a type of formalism. In December 1955, in the most important or founding announcement of the Juche idea, Kim delivered a speech titled “On Eliminating Dogmatism and Formalism and Juche in Ideological Work.” In that speech Kim stated, “the Korean communists, lacking a firm foundation or criteria for action, inevitably engaged in dogmatism and formalism and blindly followed the policies of others.”

Eliminating dogmatism, formalism and conservativism is emblematic of Juchefication, and its elimination is based on a firm foundation or criteria for action.

The New York Times article, linked above, makes a hitherto standard assumption shared by analysts (including by myself). That is, that the Musudan medium range missile, based on the Soviet R-27 Zyb, was designed to be a stepping stone toward an ICBM. Recent analysis suggests competing parallel ICBM programmes, but the Musudan is still couched within an ICBM development programme. Let us drop these assumptions, for the sake of argument.

Let us assume instead that the Musdan missile, which had only one successful flight test amidst a string of failures, was a discrete developmental programme not meant to lead to an ICBM. Whatever the Musudan mission was now it is met by the Pukguksong-2 MRBM, itself also derived from the R-27 Zyb but based on a solid fuelled motor rather than a liquid propelled engine. North Korea after a successful flight test of the Pukguksong-2 stated that it was moving from liquid fuelled engines to solid fuelled motors. But then we saw the Hawsong-12, Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15.

The North Korean statement on the Pukguksong-2 is consistent so long as we assume it was not meant to be a harbinger of what was to come ICBM wise.

North Korea possessed a separate ICBM programme based on indigenous science and technology, which we saw develop in 2016 and 2017. Of course, there is the matter of how the KN-08 and KN-14 ICBMs fit into this picture, there exist images of the KN-14 with a two 4D10 main engine cluster, however neither was flight tested. I’ll leave that for another day, but I should say that this analysis is necessarily speculative.

Why did North Korea’s missile programme advance under Kim Jong Un? Part of the answer can be found in the elimination of dogmatism, conservativism and formalism which is to say in the Juchefication of Pyongyang’s missile programme.

As an aside we note that the development of science and technology is at the core of North Korea’s strategic and economic policies under Kim Jong Un. The development of a technocratic intelligentsia chaffing under the strictures of party control, as in the Soviet Union, could lead to pressure for social change in North Korea, which would be quite the irony.