Why North Korea’s Missile Success Isn’t a Secret, and Why a Solid Fuelled ICBM Might Come Sooner than Later

A perceptive Japanese economist has described North Korea’s economy as that of a poor advanced country, an important observation. Many, but by no means all, of the key developments underpinning North Korea’s successful development of a long range missile capability are readily apparent, and moreover many of them are not a secret. I also rather suspect that North Korea will develop a solid fuelled road mobile ICBM sooner than we think.

The idea that there is a “secret” to North Korea’s success, to no small degree, lies behind the view that North Korea has developed a long range missile capability through the reverse engineering of missile engine assemblies and components from abroad and that because it is both poor and technologically primitive. In particular, the view that North Korea has engineered a Soviet era engine, the RD-250, and modified it for use on the Hwasong-12 IRBM and Hwasong-14 ICBM has taken an especially strong hold on the public imagination.

For those who argue that North Korea’s success can be attributed to its own indigenous efforts a key technical advance underpinning Pyongyang’s missile manufacturing capability are Computer Numerically Controlled machine tools. CNCs are vital to the aerospace industry elsewhere, for instance China attributes the successful manufacture of the Long March 5 heavy lift space launch vehicle and the Tianzhou 1 spacecraft to use of CNC machine tools.

North Korea has hardly kept CNC machine tools a secret, often showing Kim Jong-il and Kin Jong-un in their company when visiting factories that compose the North Korean military industrial complex. CNC machine tools have also featured heavily in North Korean propaganda, as the header image demonstrates.

Computer aided design and manufacturing, and the microprocessors enabling them, were assessed in the late 1980s by the US intelligence community to be highly desired capability acquisitions, through industrial espionage, for the Soviet Union for it would enable Moscow to indigenously develop high technology weapons systems conversant with the revolution in military affairs rather than rely on the reverse engineering of foreign assembled systems and components.

One of the advanced manufacturing Computer Numerically Controlled machine tools seen as being of significance for the Soviets were filament winding machines able to manufacture wound structures made of composite filament materials, such as solid motor casings, with motions coordinated and programmed in more than three axes. It was recognised that high precision and highly reliable CNC filament winding machines would enable the manufacture of high strength but low weight solid motor casings, essential for achieving high ranges and increased throw weight for solid fuelled missiles.

The Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia joined the global economy, so acquiring CNC machine tools and microelectronic technologies through subterfuge was no longer a problem for Moscow. But, alas, the concerns expressed by the intelligence community then certainly apply to North Korea now. Consider the matter of solid motor casings. Earlier this year Kim Jong-un paid a visit to the Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Sciences. North Korea showed off the filament wound solid motor casing for a Pukguksong solid fuelled missile (see image below.)

Pyongyang also showed off part of a filament winding machine. In his discussion of the Kim visit Michael Elleman, the main proponent of the RD-250 origin of the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles, noted that it is not clear whether the machine in question can produce cylindrical filament wound casings greater than 1.5m diameter. The R-27 (SS-N-6) sea launched ballistic missile, the basis of the Pukguksong 1 and Pukguksong-2 solid fuelled missiles, had a diameter of 1.5m. The R-27 did not use a solid motor, rather a liquid propelled engine namely the 4D10 of which I shall speak more in a subsequent post. North Korea’s, most likely CNC, filament winding machine was critical to the North Korean Pukguksong advance. Surely this cannot be denied.

The Minuteman III solid fuelled ICBM has a diameter of 1.7m and the MX had a diameter of 2.3. The Soviet Topol (SS-25) solid fuelled ICBM had a diameter of 1.8m, and the Topol-M (SS-27) has a diameter of 1.9m and the RS-24 Yars (SS-29) a diameter of 2m. A Computer Numerically Controlled filament winding machine able to develop solid motor casings greater than 1.5m diameter is a critical manufacturing technology for a North Korean solid fuelled ICBM programme, and they may well be in possession of it. Furthermore, those who have been sceptical of North Korea’s capabilities argue that developing solid propellants for a solid fuelled ICBM would be a very difficult undertaking for North Korea. However, even here CNC machine tools, as discussed, would be of great advantage.

The solid fuel for an ICBM requires, most typically, a large number of aluminium and ammonium perchlorate particles of a very precise geometry and size. The level of precision required is widely seen as beyond North Korea. CNC machine tools would be most handy here, too, and may well lead to more “gift packages” soon.

I have the view that we will see a solid fuelled North Korean ICBM sooner than many realise.

There’s another argument to be made regarding the importance of CNC machine tools in the development of an indigenous high technology military-industrial complex in North Korea. That involves the development of advanced gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment. As we know, North Korea was a client of the AQ Khan network which sold critical gas centrifuge technology to proliferators such as Pyongyang. The idea was to acquire the technology so that gas centrifuges could be reversed engineered for domestic production, but that’s not easy nor reliable as the example of Iran had shown.

However, by acquiring a CNC flow forming machine North Korea could manufacture rotors for advanced centrifuges indigenously, which very much appears to have been the case. North Korea was thereby able to build a significant and advanced uranium enrichment plant, pretty much indigenously, in this way. North Korea has consistently shown an interest in moving beyond reliance on foreign supplies of technology in favour of indigenous production, just as the US argued the Soviet Union would have done for key technologies supporting the revolution in military affairs in the 1990s should it have lived on.

There exists good reason to suppose that this argument doesn’t just apply to gas centrifuges but also applies to the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles. That is, that CNC machine tools have given North Korea a key means to manufacture components and systems for its long range missile programme indigenously rather than relying on reverse engineering foreign components and systems. Consider the recent plenum of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, the ruling communist party in North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s sister got all the attention, but Pak Thae Song was appointed to the Political Bureau, the North Korean equivalent of a communist party politburo. According to 38North

In 2014, Pak was appointed Chairman of the South Pyongan WPK Provincial Committee. When he was appointed, he was tasked to supervise the renovation of the January 18 General Machinery Plant, the leading production unit in the DPRK’s manufacturing of rocket and missile engines. As part of the renovation, Pak was also tasked to ensure that the plant innovated and expanded its production of rocket engines. During the 7th Party Congress, Pak was elected an alternate member of the WPK Political Bureau. After the Central Committee plenum, Pak is now a full member of the WPK Political Bureau and a WPK Vice Chairman

Pak’s success in this endeavour has seen him be rewarded with promotion to the Politburo as a full member, and that promotion surely wasn’t because he got his hands on a RD-250 engine from the former Soviet Union. In December 2015 Kim Jong-un pad a visit to the January 18 General Machinery Plant and this is what he said

He toured the plant and was briefed about its upgrading and renovation. According to KCNA, Kim Jong Un remarked that the “plant has been turned in keeping with the trend of the development of industry in the 21st century as it possessed enough modern equipment and established a flexible manufacturing system, made up of NC (numerical control) machine tools, robots, unmanned material carrier, automatic storehouse, etc., with domestic design, technology and efforts” and said that “the plant has been put on a scientific, IT, automated and unmanned basis at a high level, making it possible to remarkably raise the production with less manpower and further improve the quality of products.” Jong Un “urged the plant to continue directing big efforts to the work for overfulfilling the production plan on all indices by keeping the production going at a high rate, steadily developing the employees’ technical knowledge and skills, improving the supply service, taking good care of equipment and keeping the inside and outside of the plant neat and tidy.”

Notice the emphasis on CNC machine tools in the context of the plant’s upgrade and renovation. The picture below is from Kim’s visit. Notice the CNC machine tools.

In June 2014 Kim Jong-un supervised two distinct test rounds of short range tactical missiles, and the matter of the January 18 General Machinery Plant was noted to be of significance by none other than Kim Jong-un himself. According to a report at the time

This latest pair of missile tests is probably linked to a missile production policy initiated by Kim Jong Un in May 2014. According to both DPRK and ROK sources, KJU ordered an increase in the production of short- and medium-range missiles. On 14 May, DPRK state media reported that Kim Jong Un visited the January 18 General Machinery Plant in South P’yo’ngan Province. During his visit he said that the “plant should put the production processes on a CNC and unmanned basis in order to boost the production of highly efficient machine products needed by various fields of the national economy and achieve successes in the work for developing new varieties of products” and he “set the goals to be attained by the plant in the near future and promised with loving care to solve all the problems arising in updating it including the provision of all latest equipment needed for it.” He also opined that the plant is “the eldest brother-like plant and a heart-like plant in developing the nation’s machine-building industry and the Party attaches great importance to this plant. I came here today to turn the plant into a model one, a pivotal and core one representing the machine plants of our country.”


The plan to renovate and upgrade the January 18 General Machinery Plant is a key aspect of KJU’s missile production policy because it will manufacture missile engines for the DPRK’s eventual new inventory of short- and medium-range missiles. Additional missile production is also expected to be carried out at other industrial facilities in South P’yo’ngan Province. Underscoring the importance of South P’yo’ngan Province in DPRK missile production, Kim Jong Un has tapped one of his close aides to monitor the progress of manufacturing as well as the renovation of the January 18 General Machinery Plant. In late May, WPK Organization Guidance Department deputy [vice] director Pak Thae Song (Pak T’ae-so’ng) was appointed Chief Secretary of the South P’yo’ngan WPK Provincial Committee. In this position, Pak will ensure that relevant factory managers and functionaries in South P’yo’gan comply with KJU’s instructions on missile production.

The engine that powers the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 was developed indigenously at the January 18 General Machinery Plant and the key aspect to North Korea’s success was the use of CNC machine tools to support advanced computational manufacturing of the engine and its components. CNC machine tools are also useful for manufacturing ablative materials for an ICBM Reentry Vehicle.

Furthermore, and this is crucial, the Plant was managerially, that is organisationally, reorganised. When North Korea statically hot tested the March 18 Revolution engine in September 2016 and March 2017, the engine is widely credited as powering the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14, Kim Jong-un attributed its development to the dispensing of “conservativism, dogmatism and formalism” in North Korea’s missile programme. That’s surely a reference to more than just the use of CNC machine tools.

When we look back on the US and Soviet early ICBM programmes from a distance we see how the social organisation of the programme is more perceived as crucial to their success, not so much a theoretical or technical advance. Even histories of Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project emphasise this. In the case of the United States the advent of concurrency, the integrated and concurrent development of ICBM components, is seen as key to the speedy development of the Atlas ICBM. in the USSR Chertok in his memoirs also multiple times strongly emphasises the integrated and systemic organisational system put into place in support of the Soviet missile and space programmes as critical features to their success. This is what we might call “Big Science.” North Korea has quite an advanced military-industrial base now because of this Big Science.

I suspect the same applies to North Korea’s missile success, and that the matter of CNC machine tools flows on from that. The point about “conservativism, dogmatism and formalism” is crucial. I would like to know exactly what that means, for those words convey the secret to North Korea’s success.

The social and managerial aspect to the post 2014 North Korean strategic missile programme is not as tangible as an array of CNC machine tools, but surely they are of the first importance.

To conclude. Notice how Kim Jong-un emphasises the January 18 General Machinery Plant as a model for advanced manufacturing in North Korea. This shows how the North Korean military-industrial complex supports the two pronged policy of economic modernisation and strategic deterrence, and how they cannot be construed as two discrete aspects of policy. They are, to the contrary, quite symbiotic and mutually reinforcing.

For those who appreciate irony, we note that the CNC machine tool was initially developed in the United States as way to attack unions on the shop floor. Irony it is then that the Workers Part of Korea should celebrate them as a weapon of class war.

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