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Hammer, Brush, & Sickle

Pulling back the curtain on North Korean engineering.

North Korea can’t feed itself and has a broken-down energy sector, factories operating far below capacity, and a per capita gross domestic product one-twentieth that of its neighbor, South Korea. Strapped for cash, the regime is reputed to traffic in drugs and counterfeit currency. Political wrongdoers are sent to forced-labor camps.

Clearly, the people’s paradise envisioned by the late leader Kim Il Sung falls short in economic planning, to say nothing of human rights. Yet there’s one field of endeavor in which this opaque, tightly controlled, and heavily militarized nation excels, at least where it coincides with regime priorities. And that’s engineering.

While North Korea’s nuclear engineers won’t win any popularity contests in Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington, their skills impress Siegfried Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of America’s atomic bomb. Now co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, Hecker has made six trips to North Korea and visited the main nuclear site at Yongbyon, a closed city, where he got to know nuclear and chemical engineers and materials scientists. He says it’s likely North Korea now possesses four to eight primitive nuclear bombs. Although the country has not yet perfected the technology to fashion nuclear missile warheads, it conducted a nuclear test in 2006 and a second, bigger one last May.

Photo: Vehicles equipped with rockets move along Kim II Sung Square in Pyongyang during a 2008 North Korean military parade.
Vehicles equipped with rockets move along Kim II Sung Square in Pyongyang during a 2008 North Korean military parade.

Hecker, a metallurgist and professor in Stanford’s management science and engineering department, says he’s talked to North Korean engineers about “all aspects.” These ranged “all the way from taking the ore concentrate to making uranium oxide, to making uranium metal” – casting, shaping, and machining it – “building and operating their reactor, to doing the reprocessing and knowing all the chemistry and chemical engineering of the reprocessing facility.” What he found is that “they’re very competent and technically well-trained in all the engineering aspects associated with the nuclear fuel cycle.”

Such training keeps Western intelligence analysts alert for signs that North Korea is exporting nuclear-weapons technology. They’ve already seen such signs in Syria, where a 2007 Israeli airstrike destroyed what U.S. officials now say was a construction site for a North Korea-designed nuclear reactor.

Likewise, while North Korean aerospace engineers rattle nerves at the Pentagon, they’ve successfully re-engineered Soviet missiles and allowed the regime to become one of the world’s leading suppliers of missile systems, components, and technology. Customers have included Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan. Besides short- and medium-range missiles, North Korea is developing a long-range Taepo-Dong 2 model that, once perfected, could strike the United States. Using ballistic missile technology, North Korea tried to launch a satellite into orbit in April 2009, but in its third stage, after passing over Japan, the three-stage rocket crashed into the Pacific.

Less well-known beyond the Korean peninsula is the North’s formidable tunnel-building skill. Since the mid-1970s, four North Korean tunnels have been discovered beneath the demilitarized zone that first separated the two Koreas after their war ended in 1953. Each could have sent a regiment into South Korea within an hour. Many North Korean military facilities are suspected of being maintained in underground bunkers, and, according to the Times of London, one tunnel, drilled into a mountain, is big enough to serve as a runway for fighter jets. Lately, according to Bangkok-based journalist Bertil Lintner, the North has been exporting its tunnel expertise to win allies across Asia. Last June, he published photos purportedly showing North Korean engineers leaving a tunnel complex built for Burmese officials.

Though slowed by a lack of up-to-date equipment, North Korea’s mining industry is also extensive, extracting everything from coal and iron to magnesite, a source of magnesium, gold, and – key to the nuclear program – uranium. The country’s dam building, source of hydroelectric power and irrigation, draws unfavorable notice when periodic unannounced discharges send floodwaters cascading into South Korea. The government prefers to showcase the West Sea Barrage, a 5-mile-wide dam and causeway, completed in 1986, which separates the sea from the Taedong River.

Photo: West Sea Barrage West Sea Barrage

For a nation where few own computers and Internet access is barred to all but a regime-sanctioned elite, North Korea is also making considerable strides in information technology. Recently, it produced its own version of Linux software, complete with desktop symbols resembling Microsoft’s but designed with an eye for security. Mobile phone service is limited mostly to Pyongyang, the capital, yet North Korean engineers have designed games that have become popular among Japanese mobile phone users and software used in South Korea’s Samsung phones. Dutch IT consultant Paul Tjia, who has led trade missions to North Korea, says engineers have also developed games for PCs and Nintendo, as well as a championship-winning computer version of the board game Go.

“Their software technology is as good as any advanced country,” says South Korea’s Chan-Mo Park, president of the National Research Foundation of Korea.

Such technological prowess comes despite decades of self-isolation so restrictive that legally purchased radios can get only government broadcasts. How North Korea trains its engineers in such a closed society is impossible to grasp completely, but glimpses are offered by the few outside visitors allowed into parts of the major universities, and from defectors.

Technology and Self-Reliance

The country started from behind in the years after World War II. Educational advances had stalled during the 35 years that Japan controlled Korea after annexing the peninsula in 1910. Although a small number of Koreans received advanced training at an imperial university in Seoul and in Japan, by the time of Japan’s defeat, more than 2 million Koreans were illiterate.

The war’s end left the Soviet Union in control of northern Korea and the United States controlling the South. The early post-war years brought the return of Koreans reared as communists in the Soviet Union, a number of them trained in science and engineering. With their help, Kim Il Sung – then leader of the communist Korean Workers’ Party – launched a drive to industrialize the North while building up its armed forces, which invaded the South in 1950. The Korean War brought new setbacks to education, leaving cultural and educational facilities in ruins.

Photo: Worker at a metal fabrication factory on the outskirts of Pyongyang.
Worker at a metal fabrication factory on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

Soviet-bloc aid and institutions were an important source of North Korean technical expertise in the decades following the Korean War, but periodically strained relations between Kim and Moscow meant that Soviet help wasn’t always forthcoming. Three years after the 1953 armistice, Kim cemented his control over the country and purged a number of “Soviet Koreans.” Seeking to supplant centuries of foreign influence, which ranged from Chinese Confucianism through 19th-century Christian missions, to Japanese cultural domination and, finally, Stalinism, Kim promoted an ideology of juche, or self-reliance. With his own personality cult at the center of this new nationalism, Kim set out to create a universal, compulsory education system strong in technical training, one that would give every Korean a specialized skill.

By 1961, the country boasted 78 universities with 97,000 students, 65 percent of them in technical fields or engineering. Topping the educational hierarchy were three doctorate-granting institutions: Kim Il Sung University, Kim Ch’aek Polytechnical Institute (now University), and Pyongyang Medical University. To these was added a think tank, the Academy of Sciences, which set up an agency to collect and analyze data on advanced science and technology. In a symbol of the importance the regime attached to learning, a Pyongyang monument contains both the communist hammer and sickle and, in the middle, a calligraphy brush, representing scholarship.

The headlong rush to advance and industrialize took a toll on students, who were described in an article at the time as looking “miserable” and shabbily dressed. But it paid off, for a while: Writing in the China Quarterly in 1963, one scholar declared that “it appears indisputable to this author that North Korea has made greater economic strides during the postwar period as a whole than has South Korea.” In several reports issued during the 1970s, Central Intelligence Agency analyst Helen-Louise Hunter also commented upon North Korea’s economic progress. Though opportunities for higher education were limited for the masses, “the North Korean leadership has taken great pride in its free educational system and free medical services,” she noted in 1999.

Kim had laid the foundation for a nuclear program as early as the 1950s, according to Hecker, sending several hundred students and researchers to Soviet universities and research centers, such as the showpiece particle physics laboratory in Dubna. Yongbyon became a training center after the Soviets built a research reactor there in the 1960s. By the 1970s, says Hecker, North Koreans were prepared to launch a nuclear program “without external assistance.”

“They took the Soviet-made, and initially Soviet-operated, research reactor, and then they upgraded it to run on highly enriched uranium,” Hecker tells Prism. “The North Koreans told me that they did all the nuclear engineering associated with that themselves.” Of North Korea’s gas-graphite reactors, Hecker says, “The best that we can tell, they built all of those themselves, without any external help whatsoever – except they patterned the reactors after the British gas-graphite reactors.” A good number of the younger engineers and scientists he spoke with were trained in North Korean universities.

Similarly, according to a defector who studied geology at Kim Il Sung University in the 1980s, North Korea developed its own dam-building expertise. “For the most part, when North Koreans built dams, they didn’t need outside support because they were experts,” he states.

Photo: A metro attendant in the Pyongyang subway.
A metro attendant in the Pyongyang subway.

In most societies, advanced engineering helps fuel economic development. But the formula doesn’t work in a country that loses its allies and is viewed as a regional menace, as has been the case with North Korea. The Soviet empire’s collapse in the late 1980s deprived the DPRK of subsidies and reliable trading partners. China was hurtling into the global marketplace and less inclined to succor a recalcitrant client. Left in the dust but clinging to a command economy, North Korea brandished its nuclear weapons program as a form of leverage to extract U.S., South Korean, and Japanese aid and break free of international sanctions. But neither the World Food Program, nor heavy oil deliveries — nor the West’s promise of a relatively benign light-water nuclear reactor — made up for North Korea’s growing impoverishment and agricultural collapse. Aggravated by natural disasters, a 1990s famine killed hundreds of thousands.

By the time Shiu-Kai Chin visited Pyongyang’s universities in 2002, North Korea was chronically short of fuel, and aggressive energy-saving measures were the norm. “Everywhere we met, we met in a room lit by natural sunlight,” recalls Chin, a professor in the electrical engineering and computer science department at Syracuse University. “I saw very few, if any, electric bulbs used.’’ Elevators were turned on only for occasions like the arrival of his delegation, he concluded. “They were just very, very careful about all of their resources.”

A computer engineer and cybersecurity expert, Chin was in North Korea during the first year of an IT project between Syracuse and Kim Ch’aek University of Technology, the only sustained U.S.-North Korean academic science collaboration to date. Arranged by Syracuse’s public affairs Maxwell School and the New York-based nonprofit Korea Society, the partnership has led to exchanges of visits by professors and graduate students, advanced IT training, and Syracuse help in designing an open-source, software-based digital library at Kim Ch’aek.

While Kim Ch’aek is strong in nuclear, mining, and other fields of engineering, according to South Korea’s Chan-Mo Park, it sought to base its collaboration with Syracuse on IT. This reflects what has become a priority of the regime headed by Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung’s son and successor. Besides universities, seven research institutes now focus on IT. Chin and his Syracuse colleagues provided materials on information assurance and security, fundamental logic, and a theorem prover developed at Cambridge University called Higher Order Logic, as well as a summary of ABET standards.

Photo: The e-library of Kim Chaek University opened in 2006.
The e-library of Kim Chaek University opened in 2006.

While he saw “top-of-the-line computing equipment” at Kim Ch’aek, Chin assumes it’s not widespread. Still, lack of access to advanced computing can be a plus when it comes to math skills. “I think the absence of computer-aided design tools and the like forces DPRK engineers to do extra mathematical analyses to check for errors,” he notes. Tight restriction on information flow means scholarship is fragmented. Still, there are “deep capabilities in some areas.”

One of those capabilities was natural-language processing software. Chin recalls being stunned at the accuracy with which North Korean software translated technical notes on network security that he had provided Kim Ch’aek scholars. “It was remarkably close,” Chin says. “I don’t think they faked it.”

But Chin also feels that North Koreans’ overall approach to engineering may be hampered by the regime’s controls. During his 11 years at General Electric, he notes, “I grew up with what I think people would call today the ‘culture of technical confrontation,’ which is, if you saw something wrong, it was your obligation to speak to it, however high up the authority went that was making the mistake.

“My guess is that that kind of culture is not particularly welcome” in North Korea, Chin adds, noting that “that has profound effects on the engineering process.”

Helped in their preparation by advisers from Syracuse, Kim Ch’aek undergraduates performed well enough in the 2008 International Collegiate Programming Contest to be among 100 teams – of 6,700 worldwide – to be invited to compete in the finals. In the end, however, they didn’t go to Canada for the finals. The reason – as with much in North Korea – has never been offered.

Many middle-class North Koreans dream of “getting a good technical education and then a job in the military industry, where they still give full rations,” says historian Andrei Lankov, who studied at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University after obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Soviet Union.

But more than academic accomplishment qualifies a student for advanced study, particularly abroad. “First, they ask whether the family is faithful to the government. They study very closely the family background and family legacy of the student,” says the geologist defector in Seoul. Only after that are a student’s academic abilities assessed.

Not “a bunch of robots”

The visiting North Korean students have not been permitted to spend more than a few weeks at a time at Syracuse, but the exchange suggests at least an easing of strictures by the regime. Aside from IT, North Korea’s young engineers are looking abroad to models for boosting hydro-electric power. Pyongyang’s Academy of Sciences has sent a number of hydraulic and electrical engineers to the Hangzhou Regional Center for Small Hydro Power. Run jointly by the United Nations Development Program and China, the center focuses on developing small-scale systems – 30 megawatts or less – for remote rural areas.

Photo: The e-library at the Kim II Sung University in Pyongyang.
The e-library at the Kim II Sung
University in Pyongyang.

Other signs of a broader scientific outreach by Pyongyang provide some insight into the current state of North Korea’s engineering education. Peter Agre, a Nobel-laureate malaria specialist at Johns Hopkins University and immediate past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, led a delegation to Pyongyang in December that included Stuart Thorson, a political scientist who initiated Syracuse’s collaboration, and Cathleen Campbell, president of the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation. “My strongest impression was of the enthusiasm and passion of the researchers we met,” says Campbell. The Agre delegation was from the U.S.-DPRK Science Engagement Consortium (composed of AAAS, CRDF, the Korea Society, and Syracuse University.

Another avenue for dialogue is the opening of North Korea’s first privately funded university. A $35 million graduate school, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology will host an international faculty, offer courses taught in English, and eventually, house 2,600 students, each selected by the government. The school represents the vision of Kim Chin-kyung, a naturalized American who 60 years ago fought for South Korea during the Korean War and who was detained by Pyongyang in 1998 on charges of being an American spy. In 1992, Kim founded another university in a communist country: China’s now thriving Yanbian University of Science and Technology. Kim, who has since reconciled with the DPRK government, told Prism, “The North Koreans approached me to make this university because they saw the success of YUST in China.”

In the past, North Koreans have expressed interest in exchanges with Americans on nano- and biotechnology but ultimately backed off. The dilemma, says Hecker, is that “they have to first figure out what to do at the high governmental level before they allow the scientists and engineers to get back in.” In scientist-to-scientist conversations, he says the North Koreans “knew when they had to espouse the government line.” Yet flashes of humor often emerged in the oblique answers he received to technical questions. “I wasn’t going in there speaking to a bunch of robots.”

The future of Kim Jong Il’s regime draws intense speculation: Collapse? Transition to his son? Gradual absorption by South Korea? Unification may not be kind to North Korean engineers, suggests Andrei Lankov. “I think that the military engineers, who are by far the best trained of all North Korean technical experts, will not find much employment in a unified country, since their skills will not be in demand.” What seems clear, however, from the country’s technical progress over the past six decades is that, whatever the consequences for their region and the world, North Korean engineers are resilient, determined, and ready to keep moving forward.

Mark Matthews is managing editor of Prism. Freelance writer Geoffrey Cain reported from Seoul.




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