Category Archives: DPRK

Quality, Secrecy, Dedication

Those are the “core values”: of a Pyongyang-based software outsourcing operation whose website was just “flagged”: by NK Econ Watch:

bq.. Nosotek is the first western IT venture in DPRK (North Korea).
In DPRK, software engineers are selected from the mathematics elite and learn programming from the ground-up, such as assembler to C#, but also Linux kernel and Visual Basic macros.
Among them, Nosotek has attracted the cream of local talent as the only company in Pyongyang offering western working conditions and Internet access.
In addition to the accessible skill level Nosotek was set-up in DPRK because IP secrecy and minimum employee churn rate are structurally guaranteed.

Nosotek sells direct access to its 50+ programmers jointly managed by western and local managers.

p. So, how good is the DPRK mathematics elite? Offhand, I’d say pretty damned good. Their team just came in fifth in the 2009 “International Mathematics Olympiad”:, a high-school contest where dozens of nations compete annually. (China has taken top honors in most years since 1989, a pretty good indicator that the competition is on the level.)

About a month ago, I shared some observations about the quality of NK engineering (“here”: and “here”: This is leading up to something, I promise!

Update: “See here”:

Where’s The Musudan?

I assume that the U.S., South Korea, and Japan all have a pretty good idea of what kind of missiles North Korea is shooting into the Sea of Japan at any given time, what with all the radars and imaging systems available to them and the information shared between the U.S. and each of its treaty allies. So we can probably trust the claims in the South Korean press about the “types of theater ballistic missiles fired on July 4”:

That raises the question in the title of this post. Why is North Korea test-firing more or less the same batch of missiles that it did three years ago? Why not flight-test the “SS-N-6 clone”: for the first time?

It’s certainly curious. David Wright and Ted Postol see the “second stage of recently flown Iranian and North Korean SLVs”: as derived from the SS-N-6. If that’s correct, why hasn’t it been flight-tested separately?

The allies just don’t have their story straight on this one:

* The “2009 edition of NASIC’s glossy missile threat report”: states that “North Korea has an IRBM in development.”

* On “March 19 of this year”:, General Walter Sharp, the commander of U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK), went further, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that “North Korea is now fielding a new intermediate range ballistic missile capable of striking Okinawa, Guam and Alaska.”

* In February, according to _Chosun Ilbo,_ the newly released South Korean Defense White paper stated outright that the new IRBMs had been “deployed in 2007”:

(As of this writing, the website of the “South Korean Ministry of National Defense”: is down. Must be those pesky DDOS attacks.)

Perhaps it’s a matter of interpretation, and some analysts are waiting for a flight test before calling the missile deployed. If so, they must have been disappointed on July 4.

*Update.* X-posted, with cosmetic adjustments, to “ACW”:

Fireworks Rundown

So you were wondering what it was the North Koreans fired off on July 4 this year. Yeah, me too. Here’s what the South Korean press has been reporting.

According to “Joongang Ilbo”:, it was all in a day’s work:

bq. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed Saturday that North Korea launched two missiles between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., with a third following at 10:45 a.m. and a fourth at noon. The North then launched one each at 2:50 p.m., 4:10 p.m. and 5:40 p.m.

That makes seven.

Citing _Chosun Ilbo,_ the Associated Press “breaks out the types”: as follows:

bq.. On Monday, South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported the launches were believed to have included three Scud-ER missiles with a range of up to 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).

The paper said the Scud-ER has a longer range and better accuracy compared with previous Scud series so is “particularly a threat to Japan.”


The Chosun Ilbo, citing a government source it did not name, said the other four missiles were two Scud-C missiles with a range of 310 miles (500 kilometers) and two medium-range Rodong missiles that can travel up to 810 miles (1,300 kilometers).

Five of the seven missiles flew about 260 miles (420 kilometers) from an eastern coastal launch site [Kittaeryong] and landed in one area, meaning their accuracy has improved, the paper said.

p. Now, for comparison, let’s roll back the clock to July 5, 2006. According to the July 2006 issue of _IISS Strategic Comments_, on that occasion, they launched the following items (as “assessed” by someone) from the Kittaeryong base (with one exception):

  1. 0333: Scud-D
  2. 0404: No-dong
  3. 0501: Taepo-dong 2 (from Musudan-ri)
  4. 0712: Scud-C
  5. 0731: No-dong
  6. 0732: Scud-ER / No-dong
  7. 1720: No-dong
All times are local.

(What’s a Scud-D, you ask, if it’s not a Scud-ER or a Nodong? I’m not sure. The naming conventions are very messy.)

So once again, seven launches, and setting aside the TD-2, the types were similar. But in 2009, the DPRK missile crews were allowed to sleep in for awhile. No pre-dawn launches.

One final note. The “Korea Times”: has an estimate of how many theater missiles North Korea has:

bq. The North is believed to have about 1,000 ballistic missiles alone — including nearly 700 Scud missiles of various types and 320 Rodong missiles.

It sounds like the DPRK has plenty of provocations in its quiver.

About That Enrichment Program


_[This post has been updated to add the mention of the LWR in the April 14 statement, which I somehow overlooked.]_

In the last two months, the North Korean Foreign Ministry has had some things to say about light-water reactors and uranium enrichment.

On “April 14”:, the Foreign Ministry stated that “there is no need any more to have the six-party talks,” and added in that connection that the DPRK

bq. will positively examine the construction of its light water reactor power plant in order to round off the structure of the Juche-based nuclear power industry.

p. On “April 29”:, it was further announced that, in response to the Security Council Presidential Statement of April 13,

bq. the DPRK will make a decision to build a light water reactor power plant and start the technological development for ensuring self-production of nuclear fuel as its first process without delay.

On “June 13”:, in response to UNSCR 1874, it was further announced that

bq.. The process of uranium enrichment will be commenced.

Pursuant to the decision to build its own light-water reactor, enough success has been made in developing uranium enrichment technology to provide nuclear fuel to allow the experimental procedure.

p=. *Well, That Was Quick*

Actually, what’s surprising is that it took so long to hear these declarations. Readers of this blog are probably already familiar with the history of “North Korea’s uranium enrichment-related acquisition activities”: and the dispute surrounding them, which served as the proximate cause of the “end of the Agreed Framework”: In the face of American accusations that North Korea had started a HEU-based program for weapons-making, it would have been quite easy for the North Koreans to have said, “Sure, we’re interested in uranium enrichment. We want to make our own fuel for the two LWRs you’ve “agreed to build us”: Don’t get so excited.”

This is, after all, essentially what the Iranians have done when confronted with the evidence of their own enrichment activities.

Not that anyone would have believed the North Koreans then, or believes them now. Indeed, much of the news media simply read past the LWR cover story and reported (erroneously) that North Korea had openly threatened to “start enriching uranium to make more nuclear weapons”: This is an understandable mistake, as the LWR and enrichment statements were presented as gestures of defiance, offered alongside threats of an unambiguously military nuclear character.

p=. *R-E-S-P-E-C-T*

So now that the plutonium cat is out of the bag, and North Korea demands recognition as a nuclear power, why suddenly introduce the LWR fuel pretense, at long last? Why not say instead, “We’re going to make HEU for hydrogen bomb secondaries”?

As “Peter Hayes and colleagues”: view it, and as “Jeff Goldstein argues”: in the latest issue of the _Bulletin,_ the LWR supply demand — which dates back to the Agreed Framework — is a pride thing and an assurance of respect. If the U.S. and its allies insist that North Korea give up its existing plutonium production reactor, the reasoning goes, they must compensate it with a top-of-the-line power reactor — even if it can’t plausibly make use of it thanks to the decrepitude of the DPRK power grid. During the wrangling over the “Joint Declaration” of September 2005, the North Koreans “simply insisted on LWRs before disarmament”:

bq. The U.S. should not even dream of the issue of the DPRK’s dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing LWRs, a physical guarantee for confidence-building.

So it follows that the upsurge in LWR rhetoric is an assertion of self-reliance. “We’re done waiting for you. We’ll build it for ourselves!”

LWR-speak is also a hint that North Korea probably has a long way to go before it can make HEU in respectable quantities, and perhaps no foreseeable prospects at all. They’re not over-promising. In fact, they’re not promising anything externally verifiable at all, insofar as they’re almost certainly never going to be able to complete a LWR by themselves. No LWR = no obvious lack of LWR fuel.

There are other possible explanations for LWR-speak. I’ll return to this topic again later.

Tolkien’s Dwarves With a Slide Projector

Let’s continue with our “examination of North Korean engineering”:

The pictures you see below strongly suggest that North Korean engineers are not primitives by any means. Moreover, when they’ve done something enough, they seem to get pretty good at it. “These and a few other shots”: recently appeared at the website of a Burmese dissident journal, and purport to show North Korean experts training Burmese military engineers and overseeing the construction of tunnel complexes around Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar (Burma). To my eyes, at least, they convey a high level of comfort with modern technologies, and perhaps even a can-do spirit:


_”A North Korean expert gives a power point presentation at the Naypyidaw meeting.”_


_”Heavy construction equipment is brought in to clear a mountainside site.”_


_”Surfaced roads are laid to the site.”_

(That looks like an American-made Caterpillar brand roller, doesn’t it?)

What we see here are merely the early stages. To see further progress at this or a similar site, have a look at this other Burmese dissent website, where still photos of tunneling activity have been “made into a video”: From the looks of things, any paranoid regime or James Bond villain in need of a subterranean lair could do worse than to make a phone call to Pyongyang.

NK Engineering: Rough and Ready


As the wonk world “learned last week”:, the DPRK is the proud owner of the Ushers Brewery, formerly of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England.

Mr. Peter Ward, the previous owner of said brewery, “recalled for the BBC”: how the North Koreans went about taking receipt of their new purchase:

bq.. “They worked extremely hard and long hours. The didn’t go out and spent most of their time in their lightweight boiler suits,” Mr Ward remembers.

“Engineering-wise, you would be turning back the clock 50 years. From a mechanical point of view they were happy to take a blow torch to it rather than dismantle a piece of plant.

“They were going to rip it up without drawings, but we helped them taking it down and marked it all up for shipping to North Korea.”

p. The middleman who arranged the deal also shed some light on how long it took them to master this new technology:

bq.. Within 18 months of shipping the plant home, the North Koreans had the brewery up and running.

Uwe Oehms, the German agent who was asked by the North Koreans to find a brewery, remembers the deal as “one of the most interesting” of his life.

Though the North Koreans had limited experience of modern technology, he bought them a series of books on the latest brewing techniques.

“Despite their lack of English I was surprised that they were learning how to do this quite well,” he recalls. “The quality of the beer was quite good in the beginning but when they couldn’t buy good foreign ingredients the quality decreased.

p. So judging by this vignette, at least, North Korean engineers — and “zymurgists”: — lack state-of-the-art training (and that’s putting it nicely), but they’re hard workers and quick studies. With some basically solid equipment and minimal instruction, they can produce surprisingly good results. But they’re quite limited in resources and must rely on whatever foreign components and materials they can get their hands on, with potential downsides for quality control.

These observations may shed some added light, albeit obliquely, on “questions Geoff Forden has recently raised about missile production”: I’ll have more to say about this subject before too long.

Update: This was really two posts, so I’ve “broken out the rest separately”:

Synchronized Sanctions

Today, the Department of State sanctioned North Korea’s “Namchongang Trading Corporation”: — an importer of aluminum tubes, it seems — while the Department of Treasury sanctioned a North Korean front company, “Hong Kong Electronics”: Reading not very deeply between the lines of the Treasury press release, HKE funnels cash for Iranian missile purchases back to North Korea:

bq. Since 2007, Hong Kong Electronics has transferred millions of dollars of proliferation-related funds on behalf of Tanchon and KOMID. Hong Kong Electronics has also facilitated the movement of money from Iran to North Korea on behalf of KOMID. Tanchon, a commercial bank based in Pyongyang, North Korea, is the financial arm for KOMID – North Korea’s premier arms dealer and main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.

What’s interesting about HKE is where it’s located: Kish Island, Iran. What, “Dubai wasn’t available”:

Kish Island also happens to be where American private investigator “Bob Levinson”: was disappeared in 2007.

Institutional Memory

According to David Sanger in the NYT, some folks in the Administration are thinking very carefully about the “intelligence problem in interdiction”:

bq. Pentagon officials are clearly not eager to confront the Kang Nam 1. The intelligence about what is on board is typically murky. Some say they suspect small arms, which are banned by the United Nations resolution but hardly a major threat. Members of Mr. Obama’s team who served in the Clinton administration remember past embarrassments, including the interception of a Chinese ship suspected of carrying chemical precursors in the early 1990s. When the ship was finally cornered, the cargo turned out to be benign.

That’s the “Yinhe incident”:, for those of you keeping score at home.

“X-posted to ACW”:

Silly Season Goes to War

It must be that time of year already: Silly Season, when precious newspaper real estate gets clogged with giddy nothings.

The “Wall Street Journal”: and the “New York Times”: each dispatched a West Coast correspondent to sunny Hawaii, the better to gauge public anxiety about an imminent missile attack from North Korea. Amazingly, everyone out there seems pretty much unfazed. Must be the “laid-back culture.” Hope you enjoyed the trip, guys.

(Maybe they just needed to work harder. The Associated Press “found some hysterics”: Why couldn’t two of our nation’s top publications?)

So where do they get this stuff? I’ll tell you where: “Yomiuri Shimbun”:, by way of the “Associated Press”: That, and a momentary suspension of critical faculties. One didn’t have to read that story too closely to notice that it was perhaps not the brightest moment in the history of Japanese journalism.

Yeah. North Korea’s going to attack America. With two missiles. That’ll be interesting.

I guess it was irresistible. _Armageddon in Paradise!_

Man up, people. It’s a missile test, for crying out loud.

p=. *Annals of Threat Magnification*

In fairness to -the junketeers and their editors- our intrepid news sleuths, the Secretary of Defense made it sound like he was “taking the threat seriously”:

bq.. Dr. Gates, I wondered what you thought about the report that North Korea might shoot a ballistic missile toward Hawaii, if you thought there was any accuracy to that. And if that was to occur, would that be a situation where the U.S. would use its missile defense system, to eliminate that test?

SEC. GATES: Well, we’re obviously watching the situation in the North, with respect to missile launches, very closely. And we do have some concerns, if they were to launch a missile to the (sic – east), in the direction of Hawaii.

I’ve directed the deployment again of THAAD missiles to Hawaii. And the SBX Radar has deployed, away from Hawaii, to provide support. Based on my visit to Fort Greely, the ground-based interceptors are clearly in a position to take action.

So without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say, we are — I think we are in a good position, should it become necessary to protect American territory.

p. (The President has lately gotten in on “this game”:, too.)

Let’s just say that this course of action appears to reflect a superabundance of caution. Looking at it another way, since we’ve built the systems, what would be the point of not deploying them? But what really interests me is the word “again,” as in, “I’ve directed the deployment again of THAAD missiles to Hawaii.”

One shouldn’t make too much of a single word. Gates could have misspoken, or his comments could have been erroneously transcribed. But it sounds like this isn’t the first time. Should we conclude that THAAD was first temporarily deployed in anticipation of the April 2009 Unha-2 launch?

The first THAAD battery was “formally activated”: back at Ft. Bliss, Texas, in May 2008, but we don’t know where it normally operates. Some THAAD testing has “taken place in Hawaii”:

Update: The “Honolulu Star-Bulletin”: has more details.

p=. *A Live Intercept Test?*

Regardless of where North Korea’s missiles fly, if anyone is really thinking of trying out missile defense systems on them — whether to make a point, or just to see what they can do — I would not recommend it. Right now, it’s North Korea’s strategy to ratchet up tensions, and America’s strategy to “act like a responsible adult”: THAAD is not a toy. Still less is GMD.

Fortunately, though, I don’t think that the concerns that apply to “North American”: “GMD scenarios”: apply to Pacific GMD scenarios. Put your mind at rest.

“Musical bonus”:

Hats Off to Pinkston and Crail

Like “everyone else”:, I’ve been reading (or at least skimming) Daniel Pinkston’s trio of new reports on North Korea.

Only now do I notice this “March 31, 2009 report”: in anticipation of the long-range rocket launch of early April. (You have to register to read the whole thing.) Of special interest: he picked up on the legal maneuvering in real time:

bq. On 12 March, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) declared that it had acceded to the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty) and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.9 The DPRK also notified the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that it planned to launch the satellite sometime during the period 4-8 April 2009.10 The Outer Space Treaty stipulates that all nations have the right to the peaceful exploration of outer space “without discrimination of any kind”, and – as noted in the next section below – the DPRK does seem to have a genuine interest in establishing a space-launch capability.

And it goes on from there. Here I was, thinking myself so clever for “picking up on the same thing after the fact”:

It turns out that you can learn an awful lot if you’re willing to slog through the daily drivel at KCNA. “Like this here”: It’s a dirty job, so we should at least pay attention to those willing to do it. Hats are off.

Yeah, yeah, nobody wears hats anymore, but the sentiment is the same.

Update: The title of this post has been updated. Here’s what Peter Crail “wrote about this subject”: (shortly before the launch) in Arms Control Today:

bq. The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also declared March 12 that Pyongyang acceded to two international instruments on the civilian use of outer space: the Outer Space Treaty and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Diplomatic sources contacted by Arms Control Today in March indicated that North Korea only acceded to the latter and informed Russia, a depository for the Outer Space Treaty, that it was adhering to that accord.

*Paul Adds:*

Josh is known for his hat collection, but doesn’t want to brag.