North Korea’s Nuclear Advance Happened Because of Scientists They Sent Abroad

The Wall Street Journal looks at Pyongyang's leap forward in weaponry.

September 7, 2017 9:41 am
North Korea
This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 14, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting the "Dropping and Target-striking Contest of KPA Special Operation Forces - 2017" at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has overseen a special forces commando operation, state media said on April 13, as tensions soar with Washington over Pyongyang's nuclear programme. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a constant international effort to keep weapons-related technology out of the hands of North Korea, but clearly, it is not working. On Sunday, North Korea tested what it claimed was a domestically produced hydrogen bomb, only a week after launching its 18th ballistic missile of the year. How are they able to make such rapid advances?

The Wall Street Journal might have the answer: North Korean scientists who study abroad. The WSJ writes that hundreds of North Korean scientists have studied outside the country, many of them in China. Some appear to be in direct violation of 2016 United Nations sanctions that “ban teaching North Koreans certain subjects.”

However, WSJ writes that the main concern is that Pyongyang utilized the time before the 2016 sanctions and sent scientists abroad. Now, it is still benefiting from any lack of enforcement of the ban. It seems that sending scientists abroad is a central part of Kim Jon Un’s plan to develop both nuclear weapons and the economy, writes WSJ. 

Any sort of study, research or contacts abroad that could help North Korea “launch objects into space is of concern to the U.S.” writes WSJ, and there is a lot that experts know about North Korea, and worry about. Pyongyang has already launched Earth-observation satellites and test-fired missiles from a submarine. Pyongyang has also threatened that it could cripple electric grids by detonating a nuclear device on a satellite.

The WSJ writes about one scientist in particular, Kim Kyong Sol. For over a year after the U.N.’s sanctions on North Korea, he was at China’s Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT), getting a Ph.D. in mechatronics (engineering, electronics, and programming). The technology he studied has many uses, including stabilizing space aircraft and absorbing shock in missile-launch systems.

Mehdi Ahmadian, a Virginia Tech professor who said he had done similar research to Kim Kyong Sol, told the WSJ that the research could be turned into military applications.

Earlier this year, 57,000 papers were downloaded by nine foreign students at HIT, from the mechatronics and other faculties. WSJ writes that both staff and students believe it was done by North Koreans. Besides Sol, at least 11 other North Korean Ph.D. students left HIT in June, but many stayed and switched to non-banned majors.

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